My fondest memories of childhood centre on travelling. My family loved going places, and I spent most holidays in the back of the car (I was an angelic child: not a single “Are we there yet?!”). I adored roadtrips, and our journeys through India- from Madhya Pradesh through Delhi to Kashmir, from Bihar to Punjab- were always fun. Which wasn't surprising because those trips were mostly along the famous Grand Trunk Road.
The Grand Trunk Road is a monument in itself- the oldest and largest highway in the Indian subcontinent. It stretches 2,500km from Sonargaon (Bangladesh) to Peshawar (Pakistan), with the bulk of the road within India. In India the road extends from Kolkata to Amritsar. The highway, stretches of which are believed to have been made by the 3rd century BC Mauryan rulers, became important during the reign of Sher Shah Suri (1486-1545). This intrepid soul actually managed to oust the Mughal emperor, Humayun, from the imperial throne (Sher Shah’s successors weren’t so lucky; the Mughals returned- and stayed). As ruler, however, Sher Shah improved the administration and the infrastructure vastly- and the actual creation of this mammoth highway is credited to him.
In Sher Shah’s time, the highway was called the Sadak-e-Azam ('The road of the emperor'); later, the British, who also improved it, dubbed it The Long Walk. Today, it’s known as Sher Shah Suri Marg; the Grand Trunk Road; GT Road; and, more prosaic, National Highway 1 (or worse, NH1).
No matter what it’s called, this road has a charm all its own. Its pace is fantastic- all the way from leisurely bullock carts to imported cars and noisy motorbikes- and it's colourful. In the cities and towns, things aren’t too pretty. The Grand Trunk Road gets crowded, with markets, residential colonies, offices, and just about everything else spilling onto it. But out in the countryside, it’s much nicer.
You’ll see lorries carrying sugarcane, with a cyclist pedalling frantically behind, trying to snatch a juicy cane from the load atop the vehicle. You’ll see entire families of devout Sikhs sitting in specially hired trucks, beating drums and singing hymns as they head for a pilgrimage to Roopnagar. There will be brief (hopefully!) halts at train crossings, where hawkers will try to sell you everything from Pepsi to cucumbers to local porn magazines. There will be green fields, stands of ramrod-straight poplars, and water channels diverted from the five rivers of the Punjab.
You’ll see signs of industrial India- from evil smelling sugar factories to massive cotton mills. There will be makers of jaggery (a golden-brown form of raw lump sugar), who set up little workshops along the road, where they crush sugarcane and boil the syrupy juice in large vats till it’s thick and intoxicatingly fragrant. There will be brick kilns and weighbridges, cotton threshers and tractors.
And alongside will be reminders of Mughal days- the kos minars. Similar to brick kilns in appearance but shorter and smoother, the kos minars stand all along the highway. A kos was approximately 3 km, and the Mughal emperors built kos minars (a minar is a tower) after every kos. The kos minars were of brick plastered with lime, and were about 30 feet high. About a thousand of them are believed to have been erected, though nobody’s quite sure how many survive today. But travel along NH1, and you’ll see some- in the fields on either side, next to the road, and even in one case, in the middle of the road.
The kos minars have been standing for more than 350 years now. They’ve seen the traffic grow from horses and caravans to Toyotas and Opels and whatnot. They’ve watched forests disappear and towns balloon out into what had once been pristine countryside. They’ve seen dynasties come and go.
They’ve seen, as Rudyard Kipling once said, the River of Life.