From Landi Kotal to Wagah: Cultural Heritage Along the Grand Trunk Road
By Salman Rashid
Sange-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9231003875
250pp.

Cutting through the burgeoning Mughal Empire in the 1540s, the Bihar-born Pakhtun soldier Farid Khan — better known as Sher Shah Suri — banished emperor Humayun to Persia. He utilised all five years of his reign to create some semblance of order in a land divided by tribal allegiances and equally strong perfidy, only to be pushed back, leaving behind a sorry dynasty that fizzled away in just as many years.

Yet, Suri has stayed long in our collective memories as the builder of the Grand Trunk Road, a legacy bequeathed, in part, to present-day Pakistan.

But was it really so?

It took travel writer Salman Rashid years of research, countless cross-country treks, rides on rickety two- and four-wheelers, frog-jumping the parapets of numerous forts, gingerly stepping down the decaying brick steps of ancient baolies [water reservoirs], conversations with both the simplest of minds and internationally certified authorities and generous dollops of his one-of-a-kind humorous and satirical asides to make short — read: long — work of the well-kept secret that the Grand Trunk Road is. Simply put, it has far more to it than meets the eye.

The road’s Pakistani trajectory begins from the town of Landi Kotal at the rugged edges of the Khyber Pass, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Shady trees line either side of the ancient route that flows towards Wagah near Lahore, before crossing into India and ending in southernmost Bangladesh. On the way, it has touched many settlements, been ground for historic monuments and peace treaties and branched off at the whims of various invaders and kings.

All that the road has weathered in its centuries of existence — facts and fables, history and folklore, cultural ethos and a landscape painted, in part, by deliberate intent — makes for an amazing conglomerate of knowledge that has been glossed over by crediting its construction to Sher Shah Suri.

Salman Rashid’s beautifully produced travel treatise is a zesty story of the origins of this extensively traversed highway, punctuating scholastic history with flavourful first-person anecdotes

Hence, Rashid’s latest travel treatise, From Landi Kotal to Wagah: Cultural Heritage Along the Grand Trunk Road. This absorbing, beautifully produced book is testimony to the fact that the Grand Trunk Road — about which much has already been written — was waiting to be rediscovered and recorded from an angle other writers have failed to highlight.

This angle is essentially that, although Suri probably did build some segments of the road, the numerous landmarks along its Pakistani length prove the presence, passing or settlement of travellers, preachers and warriors from as early as the fourth century.

Rashid writes a zesty story of this extensively traversed highway’s origins, beginning from the fourth century in the time of the Mauryans, to the sixth century when Cyrus, king of the Achaemenid empire, annexed modern-day Pakistan. The author then takes us through the Buddhist, Mughal, Sikh and British eras to bring readers to the status of the road in the present day.

Rashid’s findings draw a line between fact and fiction, verifying historical record and simultaneously debunking myths that have come to be over the years, either in ignorance or purposeful design to benefit contemporary needs and populations.

For instance, he writes of a small fortification in Torkham, KP, that shows all the signs of having been constructed in the early 20th century, most likely by the British. However, his local guide refuses to venture inside because he has grown up believing that it was actually the site of Timur’s gallows, where the Mongol conqueror had had many a dissident hanged.

Hardly anywhere else might we have read of the second-century warrior king Kanishka following a darting rabbit along a swamp, only to meet a local shepherd who told him that Buddha had prophesied that a victorious ruler would raise a stupa in that particular location to house the largest portions of the sage’s earthly remains. Eager to prove himself the ‘one’, Kanishka promptly had a stupa built and planted a peepal tree, marking a site to where every Buddhist pilgrim gravitated for 400 years.

By referencing records such as the Tuzk-i-Babari — also known as Babarnama or History of Babar — and Tuzk-i-Jahangiri [History of Jahangir] as well as a good deal of investigative good sense, Rashid creates a marvellous balance between historical accuracy and folklore. The local populace would even today rely religiously on hearsay — the authors of such yarns might never even have been near any source material — but any attempt to counter them will result in one being “drummed out of town.” Such situations give Rashid’s book a wry humour to which only he can do full justice.

Rashid addresses the Grand Trunk Road — originally called the Rajapatha [Royal Highway] and, in the area that is now Pakistan, the Utra Rajapatha [Northern Royal Highway] — as a living entity that is at times vibrant, at other instances bloodthirsty and, at yet other moments, a detour for specific political, social or religious invasions. Sometimes it is buried in anonymity, yet it continues to be very much part of an important line of communication down centuries of political, religious and social invasions.

The rich, historical story of the grandest highway in the Subcontinent criss-crosses a spread of beautiful geography and landscapes of wondrous culture, heritage, fable and folklore that is much deeper and more intriguing than its kilometres of surface.

We see the crumbling kos minars [milestones], which once numbered in the hundreds along the length of the road, but now only two survive in the Pakistani section. Also surviving in various states of despairing disrepair are the tomb of one Lala Rukh — purportedly either the daughter or granddaughter of Mughal emperor Akbar — and the baradari [garden] of Behram Khan, son of the Pakhtun poet and warrior Khushal Khan Khattak.

On this excellent adventure ride into antiquity, we also read about the Macedonian king Alexander’s trek through what is now Pakistan and stories of princesses who sponsored great architectural projects. In his trademark humorous style, Rashid comments that it seems the British government’s decision to lay a railway track between the tombs of the Mughal emperor Jahangir and his beloved wife Noor Jahan was intended to “accentuate the intellectual difference between the two” because Jahangir was “scarcely worthy” of the lady who “towered” above him.

This makes the opinion of the octogenarian village matriarch, with which Rashid begins his book, all the more poignant: “Roads make all the difference to women. They have little meaning for men who can ride horses that we women can’t.”

Yesterday, today and tomorrow. From Landi Kotal to Wagah is quite the stylistic tapestry of contemporary comment and the mystique of antiquity. And Rashid’s technique of breaking up scholastic historic content with first-person anecdotes adds much flavour to what may, at times, be a somewhat taxing read for those who might pick it up for entertainment purposes only.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content/ report writer who has taught in the Lums Lifetime programme.
She tweets @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 4th, 2023

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