Few roads on earth carry such a baggage of history but for the Grand Trunk Road, a 16th century stretch that once spanned over 2600 km (1600 miles) across the subcontinent - India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. One of the longest roads in the Indian Subcontinent, it linked Kolkata with Kabul through the Khyber Pass.
In India, the Grand Trunk Road, which was known to the European travelers of the 17th century as ‘the Long Walk’, starts from Kolkata in the far-east and traverses the breadth of the country through Varanasi to Amritsar via Delhi before entering Pakistan at the Wagah Border. After the reorganization and renaming of the highways in the country, this mighty stretch has been split as National Highways 1 and 2 with Delhi being at the junction. (National Highway 2 links Kolkata with Delhi and National Highway 1 runs from Delhi to Indo-Pak border).
On Pakistani side, 26 km from the dusty town of Atari in India, the Grand Trunk Road crosses the cultural center of Lahore, follows an arc up through Islamabad, over the Indus River to Peshawar. Going ahead, it reaches the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, after crossing the Khyber Pass.
The foundation of the road dates back to about 2000 years ago during the reign of the Mauryas. Sher Shah re-conceived the Sadak-e-Azam in the 16th century, as it was then called, for military and administrative reasons and to link the remotest provinces in his empire that spread across the subcontinent. It literally bound the subcontinent for centuries and acted as a major commercial link with other parts of the country. During the British rule a slight re-alignment was made in the route between Kolkata and Varanasi, otherwise the road remains the same.
Steeped in history, this road forms a vital link for trade and communication for the social strata that live along this mighty stretch. Even after the partition in 1947, the Grand Trunk Road continues to live in both India and Pakistan, exemplifying the vital importance it attaches with the societies it touch. Huge trees on its sides, which were planted in the good old days, answer the curiosity regarding the origin of the name.
A trip through the Grand Trunk Road provides a running parade of the various facets of India, on the move, from the oil tankers from Assam, the colorful Tata trucks from Punjab, garish and battered buses, all with their horns blown in dissonance to bare foot sadhus, bullock carts and wandering livestock. Taj Mahal, Bodh Gaya, Golden Temple and numerous known and unknown architectural marvels and sacred places that lie along this stretch reassert its prominence. Rudyard Kipling set a major chunk of his novel – Kim, on this road, which he eventually described, as ‘a river of life such as exists nowhere else in the world’.
Despite the toggling relations between India and Pakistan, crossing over the border won’t be a problem for the tourist. Given the present political climate, travelers can head to the Afghanistan border at the renowned Khyber Pass, but will probably be unable to go any further; only nationals of the two countries and UN personnel cross over.
In India, now the Grand Trunk Road forms a part of the Golden Quadrilateral Project.