“Such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.”
– Rudyard Kipling
On the Dufferin Bridge, I was standing on the Grand Trunk Road. Formerly known as Uttarapath, as Sadak-e-Azam, and as Badshahi, the Grand Trunk Road is one of Asia’s oldest and longest main roads. Its route from Chittagong in Bangladesh to Kabul in Afghanistan has spanned the subcontinent for at least 2,500 years.
The original route of the Grand Trunk Road was mapped out by the Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta Maurya in the 3rd century BC. The route spanned his entire empire: from the mouths of the Ganges, now in modern-day Bangladesh, to the north-western frontier of the empire in the wild, lawless valleys of the Hindu Kush. His grandson, Ashoka, made improvements to the road. In his edicts¹, Ashoka recorded that he had planted trees along the route, built wells “every half KOS”², and constructed “nimisdhayas” or rest houses along the route.
Over successive centuries the road was rebuilt many times: under Sher Shah, the Moghuls, and the British. Sher Shah Suri (who controlled the Mughal Empire from 1540, when he usurped power from the second Emperor Humayan, until 1555) straightened the route and widened its breadth. Fruit and shade trees were planted and at intervals of 2 KOS a “serai”² was built.
In the 1830s, the East India Company began a program of metalled road construction from Calcutta to Peshawar (now in Pakistan) at a cost of £1,000 per mile. By the end of the century the Grand Trunk Road was India’s busiest thoroughfare, inspiring Rudyard Kipling to write:
“Look! Look again!…at chumars³, bankers, tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters, all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood. 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.”
On the Dufferin Bridge, that warm afternoon, I listened to the roar of engines, the screech, and blare of horns, the shouts of taxi touts and the rumble and clank of the steel deck plates as the river of life flowed out of Varanasi on the Grand Trunk Road and on into India.
¹The Edicts of Ashoka were a series of stone towers erected across Ashoka’s empire outlining the Emperor’s goals and decrees. The first years of Ashoka’s reign as emperor had been characterized by violent wars and brutal cruelty to his people. But after a particularly violent period, Ashoka had an epiphany and decided to abandon violence and become a benevolent ruler. To this end he decreed that his rule would now be characterised by fairness and compassion for his citizens and that a set of edicts (guidelines for living a just and compassionate life) would be inscribed on towers across the empire for all to see. They included rules about food safety, weights and measures, marriage, the ownership of property and the right of animals to be treated kindly and without cruelty.
² A serai is a guest house. The word caravanserai expands on this to include lodging for animals.