In the summer of 1985, Raza Ali Abidi, a correspondent for the BBC Urdu Service, travelled from London to the subcontinent to undertake a journey along the historic Grand Trunk Road. In the age of planes and trains, this journey may best be described as unusual, if not downright uncomfortable. Mr Abidi, however, was motivated not merely by the desire to cover distance, but rather to understand the historic and social significance of this road, which connected Peshawar to Calcutta and nearly everything that lay in between. His research culminated in a radio programme, which the BBC aired as “Jarnaili Sarak”, and was then compiled and published as an Urdu book of the same title.
I came across the book in the late nineties, and while reading it found myself transported to a world of warrior kings, landowners and even peasants who, in travelling along or living beside the road, had left an indelible mark on it. However, it was not until 2007 that I first travelled any distance on the GT Road. By then the road had acquired the status of an elderly relative who although may have been valued and respected in the past, was now relegated to the background in favour of its younger, more modern successors: the motorways and highways that purported to interconnect much of northern Pakistan. Although the road had shrunk to a memory of its past majesty and was overrun by fruit vendors and minibuses, it seemed to mock these modern roads by still remaining the only link between a large number of towns of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab that the motorways and highways had bypassed in their seeming arrogance.
Despite the impact it had on me, I had not thought of either GT Road or the book for some time. However, as I contemplated independence day this year, and Pakistan’s complex relationship with India, I increasingly found myself thinking of this 1,500 mile long, nearly 500 year old much travelled road as a metaphor for the intertwined histories and inherent unity of our region. Built by Sher Shah Suri, who had ruled North India from 1540 to 1545, in a brief hiatus in the Mughal dynasty between Babar and Humayun, the road had commenced its journey in Peshawar, and passing through Rawalpindi and Lahore had entered India where it continued its course through Amritsar, then Panipat to arrived at New Delhi from where it hurried onwards to Agra, Kanpur and Allahabad, before finally coming to rest at Calcutta.
I realised now that the road was unique in many aspects and served many purposes: Sher Shah had allotted land alongside the road to his allies who were entrusted with the maintenance of the road. The road was therefore managed efficiently: there were 1,700 way stations along its length in which wayfarers were provided free food and medical aid. In this way, Sher Shah was able to keep not only the populace and his allies happy and satisfied but, more importantly, he was able to mobilise forces at a short notice if attacked, and to keep a check on the comings and goings throughout his domain. Perhaps the most unique feature of this road was that it offered its services to anyone who travelled on it, irrespective of caste, religion, colour or creed.
It is important, therefore, to tell the story of this road, not only for its richness and the light it shines on the wisdom of our historic rulers but also to recognise the seamless manner in which our history merges with that of India because it is only in accepting and understanding our past that we can forge a meaningful future. As I started to re-read Jarnaili Sarak for the purposes of this column, almost the very first anecdote brought a smile to my face and confirmed my hunch of the significance of this road for both Pakistanis and Indians: having searched for and found in Peshawar the forgotten stone which marked what Mr Abidi was told was the starting point of the road, he had travelled to the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta and asked the person standing at the main gate: “Is this where GT Road ends?” With an expression of acute surprise this person had said: “Ends? Array sahib this is where it begins.”
(To be concluded)
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2011.