Why the Grand Trunk Road? India’s River of Life


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… (Kipling, R., Kim, 1900)

The Grand Trunk Road has seen it all. Described by Rudyard Kipling in his famous novel Kim as ‘a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world’, the GTR has been the backbone of Empires, the lifeblood of nations, and the mother of religions. Now, it serves as a powerful tool for notions of pan-Indian identities, unifying the communities it runs through whilst juxtaposing their cultural and economic differences. From the fertile plains of the Punjab and Haryana, to the sprawling capital of Delhi, along the Gangetic plain in Uttar Pradesh and then into the rural yet restive states of Bihar and Jharkhand, it reaches West Bengal: the product of all these places, shaped undeniably by their complex tensions and forces. What better reflection of India, then, than a road that spanned the glories of ancient Indian empires, witnessed the birth of Hinduism and Buddhism, absorbed the invasive force of both the Mughal and the British Empires, and reflects the recent nationalisms of Nehruvian secularism in Chandigarh,the Hindutva of Uttar Pradesh and the rural populism of the Eastern states. It is, in short, a pulsing embodiment of India’s magnificent diversity.

Although established as a formal trading route in the 16th Century by Sher Shah Suri, its previous life owed more to the Maurya Empire, and accordingly dates back over 2000 years, when the uttarapatha (Road to the North) linked the great cities of Central Asia. The establishment of a network of serais (Persian for traveller’s inn) by Sher Shah reflected its growing importance as a trade route, and the Mughals extended it to encompass four present-day nations. To label the arrival of the British as anything more than merely the next iteration in this evolutionary journey is therefore to continue the fallacy of British enlightenment, and to ignore its splendid pre-colonial history. Yet it remains irrefutable that the British, instigated by Lord Bentinck, accelerated its infrastructural development, raising it from the flood-prone plains.  Its development and evolution continues today, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s explicit desire to extend it beyond Calcutta to the East. Far from a dusty relic reflecting a by-gone age, the Grand Trunk Road is better understood as a living organism that has been moulded by countless generations, some of the most powerful Empires in history and the largest religions in the world.

Hopping from city to city as a fresh-faced teenager, the wonders of the Taj Mahal in Agra, the ghats in Varanasi and the Jama Masjid in Delhi left an indelible impression in my mind, of India’s glorious past and vibrant present. Ever since, I’ve needed to join the dots, to explore this world in full, and to contextualise these monuments through the lived experience of a traveller rather than a tourist. By embarking on this solo cycle trip, I hope to get a real sense for what Rory Stewart termed ‘the places in between’, in reference to his trek across war-torn Afghanistan.

Over the course of two months, I shall cycle the Grand Trunk Road, from the Pakistan border to the mouth of the Ganges, stopping along the way to consider the multitude of historical layers that now rest below the bustling tarmac of India’s super-highway. Nehru, father of the modern Indian state, once stated that

India is an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously (Nehru, J., Discovery of India, 1946)

How better to characterise the Grand Trunk Road in its current incarnation than a palimpsest – a text superimposed over time with more text? Surely that holds true for all observations, that all buildings and societies and roads reflect their past. Maybe. But it is in recognition of the unique magnificence and diversity of that past which makes decoding the Grand Trunk Road’s palimpsest so utterly alluring.

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