The Grand Road: India’s First Highway

Perhaps India’s greatest, and the oldest highway, Rudyard Kipling describes it in his novel ‘Kim’ thus, “And truly, the Grand Trunk road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles, – such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world. They looked at the green-arched, shade-flecked length of it, the white breadth speckled with slow-pacing folk…

The Grand Trunk Road’s geography has destined it to play a role in the history of India in every age.

The Grand Trunk Road, or the GT Road, or the Sadak-e-Azam (The Grand Road), or the Gernaili Sadak (The General’s Road), however you may choose to call it, is indeed a river of life, passing through four countries, and extending nearly halfway across the Asian continent. The Grand Trunk Road is one of South Asia’s longest, and longest major road. Kipling describes it as “the road of Hindustan” along which “all India spread out left and right“. To know about the GT road is to delve into history that is older than the birth of Christianity itself. Since the age of the Maurayan Empire, when the road became clearly established (322 – 185 BC) when it was known as Uttarapatha (Road to the North), to the time when the Aryans invaded the Indian subcontinent nearly 3,500 years ago, to the Mughals, and eventually the British, the GT road has stood the test of time. Its geography has destined the road to play a role in the history of India in every age.

The Ambala cantonment of the British Raj traversing the GT Road.

Following a route that was used by Alexander the Great, the GT Road was not officially mapped until the 16th century. When the British came to India in the 17th century, they gave the road the name by which it is now known. The GT road became the main highway for trade, conquest, and migration, and the starting point for countless journeys that eventually ended in Britain.

GT Road old photo Peshwar Pakistan
A portion of the GT Road (1880). Today, the foreground area is one of the busiest traffic intersections in Peshawar, Pakistan.

The GT Road stands as a testimony to the vagaries of time and to the journeys of travellers.

The GT Road starts at Chittagong, in Bangladesh and sweeps its way west, across the Gangetic plain, between the Himalayas and the Thar Desert, and makes it way towards the Khyber Pass, serving as a corridor of movement of travellers, goods, armies, and ideas. Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism all developed around this road, and Muslim advocates travelled it on their missions. From the days of the Mauryan empire to the present, the GT road has seen dynasties come and go, empires rise and fall, and has stood the test of time. It has existed from antiquity and will probably continue to exist forever, standing as a testimony to the vagaries of time and to the journeys of travellers.

The Grand Trunk road extends from Chittagong, in Bangladesh to the Kabul in Afghanistan.

The Grand Trunk Road runs from Chittagong, Banglades west to Howarah, West Bengal, in India, and runs across Northern India into Lahore, in Pakistan, further upto Kabul in Afghanistan, across the Khyber Pass, covering a distance of 2,500km (1,600mi) in total.

From Chittagong, the road traverses Sonargaon in the Narayanganj District of central Bangladesh, enters India at Farakka, in West Bengal. passing through Howrah, Aurangabad, the holiest Hindu city: Varanasi, Agra, Delhi, Panipat, and Amritsar. It crosses into Pakistan at the Wagah Border, continuing North through Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, and enters Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass, continuing west through Jalalabad and terminating its journey at Kabul. Since partition, Pakistan has controlled the 300-mile segment between Peshawar and Lahore, but the other 1250 miles of the GT Road link six different states, and is the lifeline of Northern India.

In his photobook “Grand Trunk Road: From Delhi to the Khyber Pass“, photographer Tim Smith writes, “As with travel in much of the subcontinent, a journey along the GT Road is a bewildering mix of the past and the present, tripping back and forth between the mundane and the momentous.”

A journey along the main artery of northern India throws up deep riches from history and life.

Busy street in Kolkata (Formerly known as Calcutta) India. Circa 1990. The GT road enters into India at Farakka in West Bengal and makes it way across Kolkata (Calcutta). For more images of India, check The Spirit of India.
Bodh Gaya, in Bihar. The place where the Buddha attained moksha (or enlightenment) is not far off the GT Road. For more pictures, check The Spirit of India.
GT Road near Barhi, Jarkhand, India
Part of the Grand Trunk Road build by Sher Shah Suri
Durgapur Expressway, part of the GT Road in India
GT Road at Panipat. Wars were fought here (The first, second and the third battle of Panipat). Photo clicked during my Pan India ride in July 2013. For more, check out Motorcycling India.
Yamaha at Wagah Border, India
The GT Road at Wagah Border on the Indian side. The only overland crossing into Pakistan is here. Photo taken during my Pan India motorcycle ride. For more, check Motorcycling India
Wagah Border crowds ceremony
Massive crowds gather at Wagah Border every evening to witness the closing ceremony. Photo shot during my pan India motorcycle ride. For more, check Motorcycling India.
One of the important landmarks on the GT Road, The Golden Temple at Amritsar. 30km from here is the border between India and Pakistan. Photo taken during my pan India motorcycle ride. For more, check Motorcycling India.
GT Road in Lahore, Pakistan
G T Road passing by the westernmost point of Margalla Range, Islamabad
Jalalabad – Kabul Road, Afghanistan. The western-most stretch of the GT Road, and the most dangerous.

Sources: theguardian.com, theatlantic.com, wikivoyage.org, wikipedia.org, Independent.co.uk

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