A road to empires
Tim Steel

The Grand Trunk Road remains one of the earliest, and most enduring of feats of communications planning, engineering and maintenance in the world

  • It is usually described as terminating in Chittagong, after running all the way across the north of the Indian subcontinent from Kabul, but it seems not inconceivable to suppose that the road, known in Bangladesh as Shah Suja Road, that runs south from Chittagong to, at least, the Naf River could logically be regarded as a part of this great, historic, transcontinental highway 
    Photo- Syed Zakir Hossain
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It was Rudyard Kipling, the great British poet of the imperial era, who so described one of the longest, and most ancient roadways in the world. It is usually described as terminating in Chittagong, after running all the way across the north of the Indian subcontinent from Kabul, but it seems not inconceivable to suppose that the road, known in Bangladesh as Shah Suja Road, that runs south from Chittagong to, at least, the Naf River, and may well be the route taken by the Buddha on his reputed journey to Pegu in Myanmar, could logically be regarded as a part of this great, historic, transcontinental highway.

The Grand Trunk Road, as it has been known, at least since the time of the British occupation, is believed to have its origins back in the early years of Chandragupta Maurya, the first of the Mauryan emperors of the late fourth century BCE. The initial inhabitants of these lands, however, were traders from earlier times, so it is possible that the ancient track became roadways in the time of the later kingdoms and empires.

In fact, there remains some confusion and uncertainty about, especially the borders and identity of, the kingdoms and empires that rose and fell across the north of the subcontinent; a confusion mirrored, even today, across the world, about the nations that still span those lands, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, India and Pakistan!

The Maghada kingdom, with its capital in Patna, seems to have lasted from about the 13th century BCE until the 4th, but lacked the expanse of the great Nanda empire that succeeded it, rather briefly, towards the end of the 4th century, and itself succeeded by the famous Mauryan Empire late in the latter century, and lasting for about 150 years.

Whilst rivers are considered, across the world, to have been “the highways of the ancient world,” there is no doubting that land travel was, at times, and in places, also necessary.

The Maghada kingdom’s lands may well be shown to have butted up to today’s borders of Bangladesh, but over 800 years it seems unlikely they would have remained so static, and that ancient kingdom, the most famous ruler of which was King Bimbisara, the earliest notable convert of the Buddha, may have held territories deeper into modern Bangladesh.

Equally, the Nanda empire, whilst stretching, during its brief existence, as far as the Indus in the west, is certainly believed to have extended at least to the banks of the Brahmaputra in the east.

The Mauryan Empire, believed to be founded at around 322 BCE by the great Chandragupta, is thought to have extended at least as far south east as the Naf River. Ramkot, the Buddhist foundation in Ramu, in the Cox’s Bazar district, certainly claims foundation by the third Mauryan Emperor, the famous Ashoka, and although there appears no archaeological evidence to support the claim, it lies within the realms of possibility.

It is unclear as to how we should reconcile the existence of the kingdom of Gangaridai, within the Ganges delta itself, with these other territorial claims for kingdoms and empires based on Patna; but the fact that ancient writers wrote of both suggests, perhaps, as descriptions of Alexander’s advance across northern subcontinent in the late years of the brief Nanda empire suggests, the lands of the delta which proved the last obstacle to his advance, and caused his retreat, may have protected that kingdom in the delta.

What seems certain is that, whether the Maghada rulers developed roadways between the rivers, or the Nanda connected toward the Indus, the Mauryans so extended their empire, east and west, that roads, for administrative purposes, perhaps military, and certainly trade as well, stretched, by the time of Ashoka, at least from Patna to modern Taxila, and most likely beyond, at both ends.

There is no real evidence that the Nandas, or the Mauryans developed the water craft for exploiting the speed of coastal travel that must have been ideal for their south eastern territories, and may have preferred to travel by land to the far south east.

In fact, we are told, that the GTR was complete with hostelries with stables, and ferries where required, although whether that was from earlier times, or a more recent innovation is uncertain.

We are also told that this is one of the great unsung heritage treasures of ancient India, with immense potential appeal to motorists and cyclists as well as other tourists. However, since the publicising of it by Indian tourism promoters, involving entry into Bangladesh to properly explore it, just like the first of the iconic Silk Roads, the Southern Silk Road, it remains neglected and under promoted.

It is easy enough to spot the websites of Indian origin, amongst them those who claim it ends in Kolkata. In truth, since that city was founded by the East India Company in the early 18th century, unable to find a base any closer to the teeming centre of trade that were the lands, most of which are now in Bangladesh, the road was subsequently diverted to take in Calcutta, as it was then known, before continuing, through Jessore to Sonargoan and beyond.

Rudyard Kipling, who in his writing, christened the road “A river of life,” in fact, may have been entirely unaware of the true, eastern reach of it. The furthest east he ever travelled in India, having been born in Mumbai, and subsequently lived there as a young teacher and writer, was imperial Simla, so perhaps the great man’s ignorance may be excused. There is, of course, no such excuse today, when only the origins, in both age and reach, seem to be debatable.

His poem, however, may convey the diversity of users in his time, with, who knows, perhaps a little poets licence?

“Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters - all the world going and coming.”

What is not really debatable is that it was the initiative of the great rulers of the Ganges basin centred empires whose skill and initiative commenced the building of the road, and it may well have reached the whole breadth of Bangladesh over two thousand years ago, a tribute to the imagination and initiative of people who also built one of the world’s earliest, and greatest, crossroads of trade in the delta of three of Asia’s largest and best known rivers.

This crossroads opened, by water and by road, to traders from across the world, the entire north of the subcontinent, with its highly developed skills in manufacturing, and the great treasures of central and the coasts of eastern Asia, including the Chinese and Tibetan empires. No wonder the empires that followed the time of the Mauryans seem to have been prone to flourish, at least until the arrival of the Pathans, fleeing, in all likelihood, the Mongol hordes. But, although empires come and go, the Grand Trunk Road remains one of the earliest, and most enduring of feats of communications planning, engineering and maintenance in the world. Let’s not even think about the struggle we face, in modern Bangladesh, with maintaining an effective roadway for trade and communication between Sonargaon and Chittagong! 

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