Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Historic roadways

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We all believe that the Grand Trunk Road was built by Sher Shah Suri. It seems that before this Pukhtun ruler came along, there were no travellers living in this great and wonderful land of the subcontinent. Right from school we are told how he, having built it, planted trees along the road, equipped it with kos minars — the equivalent of our milestones, post-houses, wells and sarais.

One thing has been drilled into our heads more than any other: Sher Shah's expertise at building and his predilection for the baoli — well with steps leading down to the level of the water. It has now come to such a pass that the minute Pakistanis see a stepped well in, say, Greenland or at the South Pole, they mechanically attribute it to Sher Shah.

Eighteen hundred years before Sher Shah, in the year 300 BCE, Megasthenes came to the court of the Mauryan king Chandragupta as an ambassador from Seleucus Nikator, the king of Syria. For about fifteen years, this man lived in Patliputra (Patna) and travelled extensively about the country. Thank heavens for the Greeks' penchant for writing, upon his return home he wrote the Indika which survives to our time in fragments. Reading it one can only wonder what a delightful compendium of things Indian it must have been in its original complete form.

It was entirely to the good fortune of posterity that the complete book was yet extant when Arrian (who also wrote a history of Alexander) compiled his own Indika based, among others, on the work of Megasthenes. It is from this work that we know the general alignment of the Royal Road — an alignment that remains unchanged nearly two and a half millennia later. All that altered was the name because it came to be known as the Grand Trunk Road. Apart from the Silk Road in Central Asia, it is this great artery that has been celebrated in so many books.

Megasthenes records that in the time of Chandragupta, the government maintained a department to superintend the construction and upkeep of roads. And that on these roads were placed 'at every ten stadia ... pillar[s] to show the by-roads and distance.' The Greek linear measure of stadium (plural stadia) was equal to two hundred and two and a quarter English yards. Ten stadia (2022 yards and eighteen inches) therefore equalled exactly one Punjabi kos. The kos minar that we first plonked in Sher Shah's lap only to reluctantly pass its responsibility to the later Mughals was an established item of road furniture two thousand years earlier.

If Megasthenes took notice of the inns and wells that also punctuated the length of the Royal Road (and indeed of all other cross-country connections), we have lost that fragment of his Indika. It is difficult to imagine a system that paid great attention to the upkeep of roads and milestones but had not discovered the necessity of other highway paraphernalia. In this regard, the common belief that the baoli or stepped well was introduced to the subcontinent by Sher Shah Suri, is given the lie by one hidden away in a remote corner of western Punjab.

In the outback of Attock district, a by-road from the village of Lukkarmar leads to an old and disused ford on the Sindhu River. There, not very far from Lukkarmar, is a baoli, barely noticeable because of its lack of superstructure as was common in Mughal baoli architecture. Constructed of dressed stone, the crudity of the arches in the staircase leading to the water and other elements of construction are evidence of its antiquity. I estimate this particular well dates back to the 13th century or so.

During the Mauryan rule that Megasthenes witnessed, there was a regular government department to manage the upkeep of roads. Similarly, there is some evidence that the Gupta empire (CE 320-500) followed a similar pattern of public works. But at that time today's Pakistan was under the Saka rule and the roads in this part of the country may have gone to pot.

When Sher Shah Suri took control, the Royal Road in the Punjab and farther westward was in a sorry state of disrepair, its affiliated infrastructure all but lost. The administrator that he was, the Suri king in his short reign restored the highway to its past glory. And we, who are unmindful of history, quickly placed the credit of establishing the road in his lap.

Since we are on the subject, a word on the kos minar. As a distance and direction marker, it was not restricted to subcontinent highways. In the 2nd century CE a Macedonian merchant travelling along the Silk Road in the valley of the Jaxartes River (Syr Darya) near Ferghana noticed just such a stone pillar. In fact the towns of Tashkurgan, one each in China and Afghanistan, recall just such stone pillars for that is what Tash (Stone) Kurgan (Pillar) signifies. From the merchant's description the purpose of this stone pillar appears the same as Megasthenes records for its Indian counterparts.

In parting, it is essential to clarify that the Grand Trunk Road, or GT Road as we like to call it, is the one that runs from Wagah to Peshawar in Pakistan. All other roads are National Highways, each numbered differently. It will serve the compilers of high school geography textbooks well to understand that the road, say, between Lahore and Multan is not the GT Road.

Finally a word on the Silk Road. Chinese and Pakistani engineers teamed up to build the Karakoram Highway, one of the wonders of the modern world. As always, Pakistan needed a bit of invented history to celebrate something which was remarkable in its own right. So we went ahead and called the road the Silk Road. That was Balderdash in capitals. The Silk Road in Central Asia stretched east-west. No branch of this great highway at any point in time crossed the Great Asiatic Watershed in the Karakoram-Hindu Kush complex to come down to modern day Pakistan. This was an invention of the pundits of Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation who thought it sounded god-awful romantic to call the Karakoram Highway by that misnomer. They were not content to celebrate the heroism that went into building the monumental highway across one of the harshest terrains in the world.

Not to leave the question of how silk got to India rankling, it needs be said that much of it came by sea. But there was an alternate land route as well. From Sichuan province, a major silk producing region, it came to Yunnan and through Burma fetched up in the silk marts of the subcontinent. So much then for calling the Karakoram Highway our Silk Road.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 31 May 2014 at 13:30, Anonymous Ammar Akhtar said...

Sir ur contribution to projecting true history is awesome and yet it is going unnoticed because most of the people only read textbooks and newspapers and believe what the media or some guy in a suit tells them. And this i am sure would be our undoing

At 31 May 2014 at 17:29, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I cannot give up. That some people like you, Ammar, are listening is good enough for me.

At 31 May 2014 at 18:40, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Splendid. In East Punjab, before the GT road was widened, it was known as the killer road....small road, with high speed driving.

At 31 May 2014 at 21:04, Anonymous Anonymous said...

G T Road has changed so much in recent times.

At 1 June 2014 at 08:17, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

Sir great job done to remind the old Sher shah Suri Road which still exists with minor changes here & there. Most of the part have been now mattelled.

At 5 June 2014 at 10:00, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great post . Thankyou

At 8 July 2014 at 21:14, Anonymous Anonymous said...

u seem to have issues with pakhtuns


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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