harking back : Ancient path to Lahore that joins it to the world

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, June 1, 2014


On the ‘patha’ - from which the English word ‘path’ is derived from Sanskrit - to their birthplace in Lahore walked the two brothers, Rishi Panini and Pingala, scholars par excellence in Sanskrit grammar and mathematics. They were returning home from their university at Taxila.

The road they walked was then known as ‘Uttarapatha’. The word ‘uttara’ means northern and hence Uttarapatha was the ancient road that ran right across northern India from Central Asia right up to Bengal ending at the dense forests of Burma.

Today that road is called the Grand Trunk Road, or GT Road. In Moghal days it was called the ‘Shahre Azam’, or the ‘Great Road’, while in British days it was known among the people as the ‘Generalee Sarak’, or the ‘General’s Highway’, surely because soldiers used it more than traders.

The road that the people of Lahore used, as they still do today, has existed for over 4,500 years. At least there is mention of it in the Vedas, in Mahabharata, in old records, letters, books and official dispatches through the ages. Our interest in this famous highway is not confined to the fact that it was used by invaders to pillage or destroy this great city, but that it helped to keep this ancient place alive.

In the Maurya period it was the wise Asoka who set up a road construction organisation that finalised this great highway in eight clear-cut stages. At 18 different places from Balkh to Bengal special ‘road offices’ were set up, with one being set up on the eastern bank of the River Ravi opposite Lahore. An educated guess would be that it existed on the first major mound at Mahmood Booti, for at this place some pottery of that era has been discovered.

The fact remains that a well-run road construction organisation existed almost 3,000 years ago on the ‘uttarapatha’. When Panini, that great son of Lahore, set off to research sub-continental linguistics, he mentions that he used the ‘uttarapatha’. But our historic memory of this road is confined to the fact that Sher Shah Suri got this ancient highway expanded and repaired on a war footing to consolidate his rule.

The urgency with which he undertook this work endeared him to the people for it generated employment. He set up a ‘pony express’ and provided security to the people. Enhanced communication made life easier, and hence he is still remembered as a game changer. In the process he set off a localised mechanism in which the notorious ‘thugee’ gangs were tackled, for the first time, effectively. Much later in British days it was Sleeman who helped eliminate this menace.

But even Sher Shah Suri had his own personal motive in that he wanted the road to reach his hometown Sasaram in Rotas from his capital Agra. That was his initial interest. This stretch was widened into a two-lane thoroughfare with a stone base and limestone covering.

After his death the ‘road organisation’ he set up continued, and during the Moghal period it was widened all the way from Bengal to the extreme west where Moghal influence existed.

Let us now concentrate on the GT Road and its alignment near Lahore. From Amritsar the road ran straight past the Shalimar Gardens and straight towards the northern side of the Lahore Fort. Before the British built the railways, the road moved through what is today the railways station and towards Badami Bagh, from where it curved to the left and ended up on the banks of the River Ravi opposite the Kamran’s Baradari. At this place an impressive boat bridge assisted people to cross over.

The main interface with the walled city was from a point at Badami Bagh, where a huge horse station once existed. Mind you in those days the river curled around the old walled city, so this was served by a road which today runs along Landa Bazaar.

The road in Akbari days ended up at Delhi Gate, where a second horse station came about. The last remnants of that horse station were bulldozed by the current rulers in a failed attempt to build a plaza on the gardens of the Circular Road outside Delhi Gate.

One of the problems of building massive road works is that it tends to run through important heritage sites. For example the attempt to widen the GT Road between Amritsar and Lahore initially resulted in the water filtration plant of Shalimar being destroyed forever.

There are concerns that a further widening is set to knock down the front walls of this garden. Hopefully that will not be the case.

The story of the ancient ‘Uttarapatha’ that has passed by Lahore will be seen in a far different light once peace with our neighbours is restored, as surely it must.

The ‘patha’ brings enlightenment and prosperity, just as 2,800 years ago two enlightened sons of Lahore walked home from their university. The light they radiated still enlightens the minds of scholars the world over.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2014




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