Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Who built the Grand Trunk Road?

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Friend Rahat Dar is one top-class shutterbug and I love his 'Dar side of the Picture'. And he is responsible for setting me off with this one when he printed a picture of the kos minar in Baja Lines, Garhi Shahu (TNS). The caption to the photo says this particular piece was built by Sher Shah Suri. Balderdash! So here goes.

Ever since we, the people of the subcontinent, converted to Islam and realised that the Arabs who led us up this garden (of Eden) path looked down upon us poor converts, we began to despise our pre-Islamic past. By the 13th century we were fast inventing illegitimate Arab fathers for ourselves to cover up our pagan past. And so when it came time for partition in 1947 all those of us who had lagged behind earlier became not just ordinary Arabs but Misters to boot -- for that is what the word Syed means.

That was one thing. We also did not wish to be seen preening ourselves over Mehrgarh and Harappa etc. But there was nothing we could do about them, so we rather reluctantly tolerated them - if we had our way we'd demolish them and say, 'What Moen jo Daro?' The deluge of Noah wiped everything off the face of the earth, remember. So whatever else was available to convert to Islam we duly did. One thing that we went whole hog with was the Grand Trunk Road. I always like to refer to it as the Rajpatha -- Royal Road while my esteemed teacher Dr Saifur Rahman Dar calls it Utrapatha -- the Northern Road.

Since partition (or were we at it earlier also?) we have struggled very hard to plonk it squarely in the lap of the only Muslim builder we know: Sher Shah Suri. Do not forget that all others we are eternally proud of for their acts of vandalism. The Grand Trunk Road was available and history also said that Sher Shah had taken much trouble to build it, adorn it with trees, inns and postal stations. So we thought that there were just no roads or anything else until Mr Suri came along and that we the people of this wonderful land were either trees or rocks firmly rooted to the earth.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. We, our ancestors, were great travellers. We gallivanted around for everything that people gallivant about for: we went trading, we sought nirvana, we thirsted for knowledge and we simply went exploring. My guru Dr Dar points out, 'Since ancient times this land was covered by a great web of roads.' One of those was the Grand Trunk Road that stretched from Bengal in the east to Kabul in the west. I have not read Kautilya's Ardshastra and cannot comment on what he did or did not write on this great road, but my guide as been Megasthenes.

He was a Greek diplomat who came to the Mauryan court at Patliputra (Patna, Bihar) to look after the interests of Seleucus Nikator, Alexander's successor in Syria. The great Chandragupta was king and the year was 300 BCE. Megasthenes spent the next fifteen years in India travelling about and when he went home he wrote a book. The Indika comes to us in fragments, but it still is a wonderful window to our land twenty-three hundred years ago. Among all the other things, it particularly mentions the road that connected Kabul with Patliputra.

The Indika tells us that Chandragupta had the equivalent of the modern Highways Department whose overseers ensured that the roads were in perfect fettle. That there were inns at intervals equal to a day's journey and that these roads were shaded by spreading trees. Thank heavens some moron had not yet brought the accursed eucalyptus out from Australia. At crossroads signs told travellers what town or city lay in which direction and presumably bills were not plastered over them as it happens in Pakistan today.

Megasthenes also writes, and this is the star, that there were distance markers placed at every ten stadia. Now, the ancient Greek measure of stadion equalled two hundred and two and a quarter English yards. Ten stadia, according to the historian John McCrindle, therefore correspond exactly to the shorter Punjabi kos. We had kos minars sprinkled all over this land back in classical times, nearly two thousand years before Sher Shah was born.

The kos minar, however, was not restricted to the subcontinent. It was in widespread use here and in Central Asia as well for the same purpose as ours, that is, as a direction and distance marker. A Macedonian merchant of the 2nd century CE tells us of their existence in the valley of the Syr Darya near Tashkent in Uzbekistan. No idle boast was this too. For Tash is stone and kent pillar or mound. Similarly we have two places each called Tashkurgan. One in northern Afghanistan (now renamed Khulm) and the other as you cross into China from the Khunjerab Pass. All these places, if we are to believe the Macedonian merchant, had stone pillars.

The crux then is that we had kos minars in use long before Sher Shah Suri came around to restore the ancient highway. And that was all he did: restore. As for that particular kos minar, badly encroached upon in Baja Lines, it was built, sadly, not by Sher Shah but by Jehangir.

So, dear reader, the next time someone points out a bit of ancient road, a bridge, a stepped well or a kos minar and tells you it was built by the good Suri king, attack them physically, verbally and spiritually.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 13:38,


At 26 June 2014 at 13:56, Blogger Shairani said...

Very informative. Apart from the 'attack them physically' bit the article is brilliant.

At 26 June 2014 at 14:56, Anonymous Sadaf Kayani said...

Informative, as always. Don't think anyone even knows now what a stepped wall or a kos minar is let alone have enough knowledge to point them out.

Thank you Mr Rashid for keeping our history alive.

At 26 June 2014 at 15:13, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Clearly Sher Shah Suri was the smartest of all as by a mere act of restoration, he has got his name etched in the history as the architect of the GT Road. Brilliant piece.

At 26 June 2014 at 15:20, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So Sher Shah Suri restored the ancient routes. Doesn't that mean it was long forgotten and in the absence of written history was as good as non existent?

At 26 June 2014 at 23:51, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very enlightening read. Thank you for this brilliant piece of history.

At 27 June 2014 at 00:39, Blogger Arslankataya said...

"that there were just no roads or anything else until Mr Suri came along" haha ha

At 27 June 2014 at 09:21, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir thanks for giving details and clearing the doubt about the great Trunk road. We have lot Suries now a days giving their name to the already existing structure

At 27 June 2014 at 09:32, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, it was not "as good as non-existent". it was right there, people were travelling by it and using its ramshackle inns and other facilities. this happens even today until a road and its allied furniture is repaired. The road DOES NOT become non-existent as you insist.

At 27 June 2014 at 09:33, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Shairani sahib, don't be so grim and serious all the time. Don't you even recognise a joke?

At 27 June 2014 at 09:34, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Sadaf. Though there are stepped wells a plenty in Pakistan, we are sadly left with just one kos minar: in Garhi Shahu, Lahore. And even this is heavily encroached upon. I fear it will soon be demolished to make way for illegal housing.

At 27 June 2014 at 09:37, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Fazal Abbas. Very glad that you enjoyed the piece.

At 27 June 2014 at 09:37, Anonymous Tariq Malik said...

If Sher Shah Suri was restorer of the ancient infrastructure, you, sir, have fared equally well by restoring our botched history. Excellent research!

At 28 June 2014 at 08:53, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Tariq you are always very kind. thank you so much, good sir.

At 28 June 2014 at 17:06, Blogger Unknown said...

Do we have any remains of the inns or rabats that housed the travelers on this ancient patha?

At 28 June 2014 at 17:14, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When did the names Grand Trunk Road and Garneli Sarak came to be known? Must be closer to our times.

At 30 June 2014 at 06:05, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Grand Trunk road is obviously British. Jarnaili Sarak was perhaps a little before the Britis.

At 30 June 2014 at 06:06, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Memoona, no sarais now remain. though water tanks, wells and mosques can be seen.

At 31 January 2015 at 18:23, Blogger Brahmanyan said...

"Kos" is a measurement known from Vedic age. The word "tri krosham" is mentioned in Valmiki Ramayana (VR 3-69-5)

At 17 December 2015 at 00:39, Blogger Unknown said...

So Mr Suri simply repaired and white washed the two thousands years old rajpatha and cleverly claimed the credit, how bad. Ethnocentrism can tinge every one's thought processes, and students of history are no exception, which is all the more scary, because the damage caused is deep and long lasting, and affects a whole lot of readers.
If we leave the current GT road unattended for only five hundred years and then be able to view it by some kind of a time warp, I am sure we will not be able to recognize it. Ravaged by the elements, the forces of nature will reclaim it within a couple of hundred years, the same goes for other infrastructures like buildings and wells. And here we are miserly trying to hold back the credit due to one of the greatest monarchs who had the sagacity to build a decent road upon the vestiges of rajpatha in order to ameliorate the hardships of travellers.

I hope your blog is not a one way affair and this gets published.


At 19 December 2015 at 09:45, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ali Gohar, the Rajapatha is known to have been extensively repaired by the Guptas. After that sultanate kings who frequently used it would surely have done their bit to it which goes unrecorded. Sher Shah's work was remembered. Not that he himself tried to steal the show. It was given him by ignorant historians, mostly Brits. In any case, he ruled only five years. Hardly enough time to built a road some 3000 km long, especially when there were other things to look after.

At 24 July 2016 at 07:08, Blogger Mejda said...

Excellent diction but Megasthenes wrote in Greek but was not from Greece or Macedonia. I have written that he is the same as Bagistanes, probably a Babylonian nobleman.

At 24 July 2016 at 07:11, Anonymous Dr. Ranajit Pal said...

Palibothra was not Patna but was probably in Pakistan.

At 1 August 2016 at 14:52, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Mejda, can you please link me to your article on Megasthenes.


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