UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Grand Trunk Road

Grand Trunk RoadThe Grand Trunk Road is commonly known as the G.T. Road, is the oldest, longest, and most famous highway in the Indian subcontinent. It runs from Kabul to Calcutta and is around 1,500 miles long. Running up the entire valley of the Ganges from Calcutta to the north-west frontier, first planned as a highway of armies in the 16th century by the Afghan Emperor Sher Shah. Three other roads traversed the Empire in other directions; and daily posts carried communications along these roads from end to end. The Grand Trunk Road was brought to completion under the administration of Lord William Bentinck, and by the late 19th century was for the most part untrodden by troops. The monument, erected to commemorate the opening of the military road up the Bhor Ghat to wheeled traffic from Bombay, remained unvisited by all but the most curious travellers.

The advent of Buddhism saw Punjab become a cultural crossroad. A few years before the birth of Buddha (556 BC), the armies of Darius I, king of Persia, had swept across Punjab and made the area a protectorate of Persian empire. This was a fruitful interaction that ripened into the cultured and sophisticated cities of Gandhara (present day northern Pakistan-southern Afghanistan). To the Buddhists Punjab was Uttarpath (meaning the North Road), the route to the valleys of Afghanistan, and further on to Central Asia and China. Even after the Maurya Empire came to an end, the Uttarpath continued to be used for centuries. Later, in the 16th century, it was re-built by Emperor Sher Shah Suri (1472-1545) and re-christened as Sadak-e-Azam (meaning the Great Road) primarily for military and administrative reasons. Sher Shah, an Afghan of the Sur family, had taken possession of Bengal in 1540. Humayun advanced against him and captured the fort of Chunar, which commanded the line of communication between Bengal and Hindustan. Gaur fell before him ; but the rains setting in, he was unable to advance farther, and his soldiers died off from fever and dysentery. When the rains were over, Sher Shah issued from his hill fortress of Rahtas, whither he had carried his treasures, and, coming up wjth Humayun at 1539 Baxar, defeated him. The Emperor plunged into the river, reached the other side, and arrived at Dehli with only a few followers. Assembling an army, he again met Sher Shah at Kanouj, and was again defeated.

Sher Shah advanced to Dehli and ascended the throne in 1540. Thus was the Mughal Empire, established by Babar, overthrown, and the Afghan power re-established in Hindustan. Sher Shah, the new ruler, controlled Bihar and Bengal as well as north-western India, and waged successful war with Malwa, but did not live long enough to establish a settled form of government, being killed in May 1545. Sher Shah reigned for five years, and during that time so labored for the good of the country, that his reign is one of the brightest periods in Indian History. He introduced the most salutary reforms into almost every part of the civil administration, and constructed a grand trunk road from the Indus to Bengal, some two thousand miles in length.

The bermes of this magnificent thoroughfare were planted with shady avenues,, and wells at intervals of a mile and a half. At the end of every stage were sardis for the accommodation of the poorer wayfarers and their cattle, and caravansery rest-houses for the use of the travellers of larger means. Parts of this bridged road in the Punjab from Lahore northwards can still be traced by the rows of the ancient trees and brick pillars at intervals of 2 miles. Stretching from Sonargaon (now in Bangladesh) to Peshawar (now in Pakistan), it linked the remotest provinces in his empire spread across the Indian subcontinent.

Sher Shah met with "the petty fortress and the dubious hand" that conquerors and heroes cannot reckon on escaping. He died at the siege of Kalinjar in Bandelkhand, on the 22nd of May, 1545, from injuries caused by the explosion of a magazine near which he was standing, and which was struck hy a chance shot from the enemy's hatteries. He was buried at Sahsaram, where — before the opening of that section of the East Indian Railway—travellers by "The Grand-Trunk-Road" of his European successors have often paused to admire the beautiful mausoleum, prototype of the Agra Taj Mahal, standing on an island in the middle of a piece of water, faced with cut-stone walls.

The Mughals – who regained India’s control from the Suris – acknowledged the importance of this road and extended it to Kabul through the Khyber Pass. During the early years of his reign Aurangzeb had fixed his capital at Delhi, while he kept his dethroned father, Shah Jahan, in close confinement at Agra. In 1682 he set out with his army on his victorious march into the Deccan, and from that time until his death in 1707 he never again returned to Delhi. In this camp life Aurangzcb may be taken as representative of one aspect of the Mogul rule, which has been picturesquely described by European travellers of that day. They agree in depicting the emperor as a peripatetic sovereign, and the empire as held together by its military highways no less than by the strength of its armies. The Grand Trunk road running across the north of the peninsula, is generally attributed to the Afghan usurper, Sher Shah. The other roads branching out southward from Agra, to Surat and Burhanpur and Golconda, were undoubtedly the work of Mogul times. Each of these roads was laid out with avenues of trees, with wells of water, and with frequent sardis or rest-houses. Constant communication between the capital and remote cities was maintained by a system of foot-runners, whose aggregate speed is said to have surpassed that of a horse. Commerce was conducted by means of a caste of bullock-drivers, whose occupation in India was hardly yet extinct in the 19th Century. On the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the decline of the Mogul empire set in with extraordinary rapidity.

Down to the eighteenth century, England was devoid of any system of national roads, and road construction was left to the local authorities. Turnpikes, so called from the pike or bar which can be turned athwart the road till the toll is paid, were first constructed in the beginning of the eighteenth century. Very little was done by the English Government in the matter of public roads for India until a comparatively late date. Fair-weather roads were constructed by, and for the use of, armies on the march, but these were neglected almost as soon as they had fulfilled their immediate purpose, and those absolutely necessary for the control of newly acquired territories were only kept open bv constant reconstruction. These military road-tracks were no doubt of service to the commercial traffic of the country, and this especially so in some of the more mountainous districts in the lower peninsula, where work of a much more permanent and substantial character had of necessity to be undertaken from time to time for military purposes, such as that road passable by artillery, made under the orders of the Duke of Wellington in the early part of the century, up the Bhore Ghat between Bombay and Poona. It was not, however, until the years 1840 to 1845 that any large and systematic general construction of permanent commercial and military roads throughout the country was undertaken.

The earliest example of an important main road constructed in India was a considerable length of that well-known highway 'The Grand Trunk Road.' renamed it the ‘Grand Trunk Road’ and sometimes even referred to it as the ‘Long Walk’. Kim – Rudyard Kipling’s fascinating novel – unfolds majorly on the Grand Trunk Road where the young Irish protagonist journeys with a Tibetan lama on a spiritual quest. Kipling’s description of the road – ‘a river of life such as exists nowhere else’ – says it all.

This remarkable work when completed was no doubt for many years unsurpassed by any single public road then in existence. Owing to various causes work on it was not brought to a final conclusion until long after its first inception and commencement, but a very large portion of it was executed before the year 1848. The Grand Trunk Road now stretches in a practically unbroken line from Calcutta to Peshawur, to within a short ride of the mouth of the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan, a total distance of 1500 miles. Starting from Calcutta the road is taken in an almost direct line to the southern bend of the Ganges near Benares and Mirzapore, passing through the Kymore line of hills forming the last spur of the Vindhyian range of mountains stretching across India. From Mirzapore the road follows the valley of the Ganges to Allahabad and Cawnpore, thence striking somewhat to the west it follows the eastern bank of the Jumna to opposite Agra and Delhi, with which towns it was united by temporary pontoon or boat bridges. Northwards of Delhi it passes via Karnal, Ludhdiana, Lahore, and Jhilam, crossing the Indus at Attock a few miles before reaching Peshawur.

It is stated that under the government of Warren Hastings, so far back as the years 1772 to 1785, a commencement of this magnificent early work — on that portion of its length lying between Calcutta and Benares — was made by a Captain Charles Rankin, but to what extent, or whether the work executed was anywhere or everywhere on the precise alignment of the present trunk road, does not appear. It is most likely, however, that the very early work referred to would have been the construction of what would now be called a fairweather road of superior class. However this may be, the inauguration of the first important steps towards the realisation of the splendid project of a great permanent trunk road from Calcutta to Delhi and the North-West frontier—afterwards successfully carried to completion—appears to have taken place under the government of Lord William Bentinck 1830 to 1835. Twenty years later, or in the year 1855, the road was completed to Karnal, some seventy-five miles north of Delhi, or for nearly 1000 miles from Calcutta, and its prolongation to Lahore was then in progress. The extension of the road from Lahore to Peshawur, although a vigorous commencement had been made not long after the annexation of the Panjab, was delayed for many years owing to want of funds.

The roads of Shahabad District were a comparatively recent creation. In the beginning of the 19th century, two great roads passed through the whole breadth of the district, but neither was of much advantage to commerce. One of them was the military road from Calcutta to Benares, whioh was kept up by the public. Laden oxen, and even carts, could pass during the rainy season, except immediately after great falls, when many torrents rendered it impracticable. The other road, along the old bank of the Ganges, was also a military road from Dinapore to Buxar. This road was very indifferently suited even for military purposes, as it was not practicable in the rainy season, and was not carried through between any two great stations. Wheeled carriages, even on these two roads, were very little employed except by travellers of rank, and that chiefly for their own conveyance, or occasionally that of their baggage.

Even as late as 1865 the bad state of communications aggravated the severity of the famine, and in the year 1869 the difficulty of conveying grain into the interior was increased by the small number and badness of the roads. The deplorable state of affairs at that time may be gathered from a report of the District Engineer, who wrote:— " The grain that was to give life to the people had to be distributed throughout the district, and the imperfect condition of the local' roads rendered this a task of the utmost difficulty. During the rains, when the importations were greatest, the Sasaram and Arrah road, which is the principal line in the district, but unmetalled, was crowded with traffic; and it was painful to witness long strings of carts, half a hundred in a line, cutting their way through a foot deep of puddles." Ten years later there were only two metalled roads, one of which, the Grand Trunk Road, had been constructed in 1861-62, and the other, a road from Dargauti to Zamania, was only 61 miles long.

The Grand Trunk Road was constructed throughout as an embanked, thoroughly well-drained and well-metalled highway of the first class. It is raised in every part well above the height of known floods or inundations. The top width of the earthwork was in the first instance made 30 feet, but was soon afterwards increased to 40 feet, with side slopes of 4 to 1. The central portion was originally everywhere metalled to a width of 16 feet, with either broken stone or kunka, laid 8 inches thick, and rolled or beaten down to a thickness of 6 inches. Rows of good timber trees were planted for the greater part of its enormous length, along the foot of the embankment slopes at intervals of 50 or 60 feet. Halting-places, or encamping-grounds, were also arranged at suitable intervals for the convenience of merchants and goods, and at every ordinary stage for troops on the march, enclosures for shops, and open encamping grounds, marked off and kept clear from cultivation, were established. 'Rest-houses' for the better class of travellers were also provided at distances apart of ten or fifteen miles along the road.

Except in the case of the widest rivers, of the first order of magnitude, the road was permanently bridged throughout. Subsequently, after the construction of the great line of railway — first from Calcutta to Delhi, and then on to Peshawur — provision was made for carrying the road over these largest rivers by means of the great railway bridges then constructed. The bridge structures on the lower portion of the trunk road were to a great extent constructed of stone, the piers being founded on cylindrical wells, or on perforated blocks of brickwork sunk into the sandy beds of the rivers in the manner peculiar to India. A great number of these bridges were of very considerable size — such as the one over the Lelajaum river, consisting of twenty-six arches of fifty feet, costing the moderate sum of alraut -£10,000. Little detailed information, however, appears to be now available as to these early works.

Occasionally, in the case of the large rivers, where bridges, either temporary or permanent, could not be constructed except at inordinate expense, paved causeways across the bed were resorted to. This expedient is often of considerable value in India, where the greater number of the watercourses are dry, or nearly so, for the larger part of the year, and where in many parts of the country they contain practically no water of any consideration for nine or ten months out of the twelve. In such cases the banks of the stream are cut down to an easy slope, and the whole sandy width of the river-bed is traversed by a paving — often of stone set in mortar, resting on a foundation made sufficiently secure to withstand the rush of water during the seasons of flood.

An important trunk line called the 'Great Deccan Road' emanating from the line of the Grand Trunk Road at Mirzapore on the Ganges, to extend via Rewah to Jubblepore, and connect with Nagpur and Bombay, was also an early work, and in 1856 the bridging and metalling of this great highway, now extending across the whole continent of India, was commenced. By about the year 1870 nearly all the larger undertakings connected with the earlier through trunk routes had been completed, including many of the fine engineering works leading to the Himalayan hill stations, or to communicate with the Tibetan trade routes beyond them; to the coffee districts of Wynaad, and to the Nilgiri hills in the southern peninsula, as well as the long south-western coast road from Calcutta, through Orissa, via Midnapore, Belasore, Cuttack, and Gangam in the Madras Presidency, together with a very large total mileage of secondary roads connecting the main thoroughfares with the railway centres which were then springing rapidly into existence.

It was originally intended to construct a rail line from Lahore to Peshawar (formerly known as the Punjab Northern State Railway) on the 5'6" gauge; but the metre gauge was subsequently adopted, and 103 miles from Lahore to Jhelum were constructed on this gauge previous to September 1873, the alignment being on the Grand Trunk Road. At the end of 1873, it was decided to adopt a separate bank for the railway, and in July 1874 orders were given for thi 5'6" gauge to be reverted to. Of the metre gauge line, 62 miles (from Lahore to Wazirabad) were opened for traffic on the 12th April 1875, the alignment of the Grand Trunk Road being adhered to, and a further section between Wazirabad and Naurangabad was opened on 10th April 1876. This last section was laid upon the 5' 6" gauge embankment, and the works on the Grand Trunk Road between the points mentioned were abandoned. The final conversion of the main line of railway between Lahore and Jhelum from metre to 5'6" gauge was made on 6th October 1878, since when the works on the Grand Trunk Road between Lahore and Wazirabad have been removed or abandoned, and the road has been restored to its legitimate purposes.

Today, the Grand Trunk Road continues to run in India as well as in Pakistan. The Indian side of this road is part of the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways’ ambitious Golden Quadrilateral project that includes two national highways – NH1 (Wagah- Amritsar- Jalandhar- Delhi section) and NH2 (Delhi-Kolkata section).

Starting from monasteries in Calcutta and the Holy river Ganges at the sacred city of Varanasi, it passed through Delhi. It took a detour at Taxila and Julian monastery, turning towards Amritsar, Peshawar and Lahore and from there to north western frontier to Khyber pass, Kabul, Afghanistan merging in the Silk Road which bifurcated near Turfan and Dunhuang into northern and southern Silk Route. The Silk Road served as the “labyrinthine network of caravan tracks, exchange posts and bazaars which linked Europe with Turkey, Persia, Central and South Asia, China and Mongolia”. The silk trade became a bridge between the east and west. As various religions (for example, Christianity and Islam) and missionaries, explorers, fortune seekers, invaders, men of fine arts all entered India through the same route. The Buddhist monks and Sufis traversed the same route. It is said that ‘few roads can offer a better living snapshot of so many stratas of society as the G.T, Road. For the Europeans, it was “the long walk”. Being historically a significant link, it bound entire northern India together in one string.

As part of this Silk Route for centuries, Grand Trunk Road also played a significant role in the diffusion of ideas, dissemination of knowledge and technology, exchange of commodities and talents and in the propagation of religions. Due to continuous ingress and egress of missionaries, merchants, men of talent, manufacturers etc. between East and West. It was the busiest and the widest road of vital importance to the societies it touched - connecting the three important centres of civilisation and commerce. Interestingly enough, the Grand Trunk Road stretched on both the sides of border after partition of India and had even “served as the two way escape route for 75 million refugees caught between Indian and Pakistan divide.” On its way, the Grand Trunk Road is studded with centres of art and culture. There are specimens of stupas from Gandhara period excavated from Sirkap and various pieces of sculpture from 4th C. BC, Buddhist Stupas and monastries at Taxila, Takhti Bahi and Buddhist sites at Peshawar. The Shingerdara stupa is a beautiful sight. Crossing Indus at Attock Bridge, G.T. Road has Mahabat Khan’s mosque, Qissa khwani bazaar, and several monuments at other sites. Besides, the traces of what has been called the” Silk Road Culture ‘‘remains in all its various hues and enlivens the romanticism of past glories”.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 24-06-2018 18:39:12 ZULU