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A Journey on the Grand Trunk Road

by Khaled Ahmed

Cover of ‘From Landi Kotal to Wagah’

Salman Rashid’s new book pairs gorgeous photographs with little-known history in tribute to the grid that has long connected far-flung areas of Pakistan

The extraordinary From Landi Kotal to Wagah (UNESCO and Sang-e-Meel, 2021) mixes in equal measure excellent photography and storytelling to merit a status above that of the average coffee-table book that is more frills than substance.

Its storyteller is Salman Rashid, Pakistan’s preeminent travel-writer, who is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. The traveler in him blends with the historian and ethnographer to tell a hitherto untold story of the Grand Trunk Road connecting Peshawar to Lahore. He has written steadily about Pakistan’s far-flung and little known areas for the past 40 years and has contributed to a knowledge of history that is free of the ideological accretions Pakistan is habituated to.

The book portrays the history and classic diversity of cultural and religious heritage along the Grand Trunk Road in Pakistan with an acute eye. Rashid takes us on a fascinating journey, describing the architectural marvels built over millennia and their history, highlighting the diverse cultural, religious and architectural expressions that have helped shape the identity of the people of Pakistan.

Arrival of Alexander

In January 326 BCE, Alexander of Macedonia descended on India. He claimed this invasion was to satisfy his desire of standing on the shore of the Eastern Ocean to see the sun rise from the sea. In reality, he was drawn to the subcontinent by word of its immense material wealth and intellectual development. At modern day Jalalabad in Afghanistan, he divided his force into two: he personally led the bulk of his multi-national army by way of modern day Bajaur, while two of his generals, Perdiccas and Hephaestion, brought their divisions across the Suleman Hills through the Khyber Pass. They passed through Peshawar without pausing as they hurried on to lay low the fortified town of Pushkalavati (Eucelaotis to the ancient Greeks) whose ruins sit outside Charsadda town, 30 kilometers northeast of Peshawar.

Today, having attributed the road to Sher Shah Suri, we call it Jarnaili Sarak—Generals’ Highway. Great as he undoubtedly was, the Suri king, having ousted the inept Mughal king Humayun, ruled India for a mere five years from 1540 to 1545. Much of this time was spent fighting the desert Rajputs and the Rawalpindi Gakkhars. Sher Shah proved to be an unbiased, able and ironhanded administrator in his brief tenure, with lawlessness virtually unheard of. But he could not have constructed a 3,500-kilometer road in five years as sometimes claimed.

The Chinese testimony

It was the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang who informed us of an ancient Buddhist center known in antiquity that prompted the road’s passage. Our pilgrim calls Peshawar “Po-lu-sha,” which scholars later translated as Varusha. Here the great Asoka ordered the construction of stupa and monasteries that no longer exist but whose secrets lie deep beneath the foundations of modern housing. Today, we know Shahbazgarhi only from the inscribed rock that still carries the edicts of that ancient king. From Varusha, the road swung southeast for Hund, the ancient Jabhandapura—Water Pot City—the main ferry across the Indus that Alexander went over en route to Taxila.

In the 1580s, Babur’s grandson, Akbar the Great, ordered the construction of the impressive Attock Fort and, right under its walls, the caravanserai of the Begum. He also had infrastructure built in the riverbed to moor a boat bridge when flow was at low flood. At high flood, travelers braved the Indus’ eddies in flat-bottomed boats. In Akbar’s time, this became the preferred crossing place, while Nilab was relegated to a secondary place. With this route gaining importance, Peshawar and Attock were connected by the shortest route via Nowshera, the very road we use today. In the latter Middle Ages, there were thus three alignments of the old Rajapatha in what we now call Khyber Pass.

Much like Babur, Jahangir was also rather curious in keeping a personal diary that is known to us as the Tuzk-e-Jahangiri. But at Ali Masjid he was not moved to make any inquiries. Two centuries later, the remarkable Charles Masson, deserter from the army of the East India Company, also failed to comment on the mosque. He only tells us of the clear spring and the “numerous wasps” that “good-naturedly allowed his party to drink without annoyance.”

Peshawar was Pushpapura

By all accounts, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa capital’s ancient name was Pushpapura—city of flowers. Two thousand years after being bestowed this beautiful title, Pushpapura enthralled the Mughal emperor Babur. Waxing eloquent, he counts the colors of the flowers grown in plots that “form a sextuple.” Here, as far as the eye reached, flowers were in bloom. One thousand years after our Greek mapmaker, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hian passed through the city called Purushapura. And a hundred years after that, in 518, came Sung Yun. He was to be followed by the most celebrated Buddhist teacher Xuanzang and all the three pilgrims concurred on Purushapura, Xuanzang confirming that it was the capital of Gandhara.

The three Buddhist pilgrims from China noted that Pushpapura (Peshawar) had one huge stupa said to be no less than 120 meters tall (an obvious exaggeration) and built on the orders of Kanishka, the greatest among the Kushan kings of this land. Beside this towering edifice, there was a smaller one too. This, they tell us, appeared miraculously after the main dome was raised. They record that on his visit to Peshawar, Buddha had foretold not only the name of Kanishka but also that he would build a stupa and a monastery. When Fa Hian arrived in Peshawar in 400, Kanishka had been dead for a century and a half. His magnificent stupa, however, was as good as new and it was the center to which every Buddhist gravitated.

Devoted Buddhists from China, Fa Hian and Sung Yun, stood in turn before the stupa in silent prayer with folded hands. From them comes a “pipal cus religiosa” tree shading the stupa with ‘thick foliage,’ the very one the great Kanishka had himself planted. In 631, Xuanzang described the gilded dome of the main stupa and mentioned 100 other stupas surrounding it. He also noticed the pipal tree, which would now have been over 400 years old. Buddhism, the master lamented, was on the decline and the monastery in ruins. Of the three Buddhist pilgrims, it was Xuanzang whose account, rich in piety, is the most detailed. Regarding the stupa, he tells us a very interesting tale of Kanishka spotting a white hare while riding by a swamp. Following the animal until it disappeared in its burrow, the king came upon a young shepherd. The shepherd told the king that the Buddha himself had prophesied about the victorious ruler who would raise a stupa to contain a large portion of the Buddha’s bodily remains.

Deflowering of Peshawar

The Greeks gave way to the Persian speaking Parthians who were supplanted by Scythians enriched by Siberia who, in turn, succumbed to the Kushans under the brilliant builder Kanishka. By the end of the third century of the Common Era, the wheel had turned full circle to the Persians. Now it was the turn of the Sassanian dynasty.

In the last quarter of the fifth century, the savage Huns came down the western passes to ravage Peshawar. Uprooted from the wind-scoured grasslands of Central Asia, these squat horse riders, masters of the awesome curved bow, were the first ‘scourge of god’ in our history. Xuanzang says that the great Buddha had prophesied that the stupa to be built by the pious Kanishka would be destroyed and rebuilt seven times. Now the first devastation was upon it. Without remorse and without regard for woman, man or child, the Huns, first under Tor Aman and then his son Mehr Gul, raped, killed and pillaged the land. In centuries of political upheaval, Peshawar had seen a few battles, but never such wanton brutality and destruction. The city was left a smoldering ruin and the Chinese pilgrim Sung Yun lamented the “most barbarous atrocities” of the “cruel and vindictive” Mehr Gul occurring only 100 years before his time.

How India was named

Peshawar was never a city of Pakhtuns who spoke a Ianguage rising out of ancient Avestan. It was a city of traders, professionals and scholars who spoke a language derived from Punjabi and Kashmiri with a sprinkling of Gujarati from a long way off to the south. Even in the Middle Ages, relatives of Pushpapura would have been surnamed Chawla Arora or Piracha rather than Afridi or Yusufzai. Sometime after the Pakhtuns converted to Islam in the 9th century, the language of Peshawar and indeed of other cities of what is now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province came to be known as Hindko after the largely Hindu population.

Borrowing a Sanskrit word beginning with ‘s,’ ancient Persian interpolated the initial letter with ‘hi.’ Thus, Sindhu became Hindu. The land was accordingly Hindustan—Land of the Hindu [River]. We have already heard of the sea captain Skylax who undertook his exploratory voyage on the Indus on orders from Darius the Great of Persia. Borrowing outside words, the Greeks habitually dropped the initial ‘h’ sound and altered the river’s name to Indu. Append that with the s ending of Greek proper nouns and we have Indus from which emerged an India that spread from the Suleman Hills to the Gangetic Plain.

From Taxila to Pindi

Discerning traveler Rashid writes: “From the maddening noise and rush of the Grand Trunk Road as it nears Rawalpindi, we turned into the bazaar to make our way to the quiet of Taxila Museum. We had come by the road Babur used in the early 16th century; not by the one Alexander had taken from his crossing of the Indus at Hund and through the Chach of Attock district. Alexander was not anticipating hard-fought battles because Ambhi—Omphis or Taxiles to the Greeks, the king of Taxila—had already presented himself to Alexander when he was still in Nangarhar in the vicinity of modern Jalalabad (Afghanistan). There he had made a dramatic speech about why would he wish to fight Alexander. If he, Ambhi, had greater wealth, he would split it with the Macedonian. But if Alexander were the richer, Ambhi would feel no indignity in asking for his largesse. Alexander just loved it. He accepted the Punjabi king as an ally.”

Alexander and his men were completely surprised by a city of three different religious persuasions, Buddhism, Brahmanism and Zoroastrianism, that lived in peace with itself; where theft and trickery were unknown; where the most exacting standard of rectitude was the natural way of life and where masters of erudition were held in the highest esteem and almost worshipped.

In 302 BCE, Seleucus took it into his head to pull another Alexander on India. With a large army, he marched east to meet Chandragupta Maurya at the foot of the Khyber Pass. It is moot if the Mauryan king inflicted a decisive defeat, but we do know that the Greeks were discomfited to some extent. Peace was negotiated and the general had to give either his daughter or a niece in marriage to Chandragupta. In exchange he received a number of war elephants. Also a treaty resulted in the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two kingdoms. And so it happened that Megasthenes came to the Pataliputra court in the year 300 BCE.

Jhelum and Bucephalus

The Tuzk-e-Jahangiri details Jahangir’s journey from Rohtas to Rawalpindi. His account recalls it was a pleasant sojourn on a cloudy April day along a road bordered by an abundance of dhak trees in flaming blossom. In Charlotte Canning’s time (March 1860), the Grant Trunk Road had abandoned Rohtas and lay on the road through Dina to Jhelum town. She took a detour and stood outside the towering ramparts noting “she had around 20 subjects to paint.” She wrote that Rohtas was an ogre’s castle from a fairy tale book.

Jhelum has several avatars. It is the name of Alexander’s horse. Or it is a compound of the Greek words for ‘water’ and ‘cool’. Or it is the name of a daughter of Raja Paurava (the Porus of Greek annals). The men who tell these yarns have never been near any source material, nor do they have any knowledge of Greek, but if you counter them you are likely to be drummed out of town.

At Jhelum there is a raised mound said to be the tomb of Bucephalus, Alexander’s horse. Since the vice-regal entourage was parading to Rawalpindi, this mound would be on the west bank of the river. That is historically correct for the horse died of old age before going into battle, as the Greek historian Arrian tells us. He also tells us that this occurred at the spot where Alexander eventually crossed the river for his epic battle against the Punjabis.

This shows that the city was well-enough established to lend its name to the river that flowed by. But what of the name Biyatta? History shows that the name Jhelum for the river was a local name, confined to the Punjab alone. Since time immemorial it is known in Kashmir as Vitasta and the legend of its creation is one of immense beauty and passion. After Kashmir was created, the great sage Kashyapa—whence the name—prayed to Lord Shiva to purify the land. In turn, the deity requested his wife Parvati to take the form of a river and flow through the land to cleanse it.

The story of Raja Porus

Alexander, “anxious to save the life of this great and gallant Didier,” sent Ambhi, the king of Taxila, to bring Paurava (Porus) to him. But the two Punjabis had long opposed each other, and as Ambhi’s chariot drew up, Paurava sent a well-aimed javelin in his direction. Ambhi fled. Alexander then appointed the philosopher—whose name we are told was Meroes—to the task.

Being his old friend and teacher, Paurava got off his elephant and Meroes delivered Alexander’s invitation. Arrian says the wounded king asked for a drink of water before mounting his friend’s chariot. In the Greek camp, the chariot stopped near Alexander and his generals, and Raja Paurava dismounted. A giant among men, he towered well over two meters in height, we are told by Arrian. There then occurred that epic dialogue that everyone seems to have heard of

‘What do you wish that I should do with you?’ asked Alexander. ‘Treat me as a king ought,’ came the reply, Arrian tells us. Alexander was immensely pleased by this dignified response. ‘For my part, your request shall be granted. But is there not something you would wish for yourself?’ Alexander persisted. Now Raja Paurava, whom Punjabis do not cherish as their own, a true hero and a man of character and integrity, bowled over the invader: ‘Everything is contained in this one request.’

The majestic grace of his giant adversary was admirable. Alexander made peace with Paurava, returning his kingdom to him. Later, the Punjabi king accompanied Alexander on his eastward march all the way to the Beas River where an agent provocateur drifted through the camp telling the foreigners of the immense power of the Nanda kingdom that they were going to soon face. Thousands of war elephants, tens of thousands of chariots, immense cavalry and 200,000 infantry were all there waiting for them. For the foreigners there would be no return from the battlefield, warned the man. Many believe this prophet of doom was the dynamic Chandragupta Maurya who was to rule the country only a few short years later.

The rise of Ranjit Singh

It was this Budh (Wise) Singh who was soon to be renamed Ranjit (Combat Victor) when his father returned from another victorious encounter against the Muslim Chatthas. In 1792, Maha Singh invested in the nearby town of Sodhra, that old staging post on the Grand Trunk Road before Sher Shah realigned the thoroughfare to pass through where Wazirabad was later established. The Bhangi Sikhs holding the walled town resisted and the siege dragged on for months. Maha Singh came down with a serious bout of dysentery and perhaps sensing that his end was near, proclaimed his 12-year-old son Ranjit the chief of the Sukerchakia Misl.

It was in 1799 that Ranjit Singh came to Lahore in the debilitating summer heat of July. As he entered the city from Lohari Gate in the south, mother-in-law Sada Kaur brought her troopers charging in from Delhi Gate. A year later, having made peace with his erstwhile foe Shah Zaman of Afghanistan, Ranjit was caught in an intrigue: wary of his rising power and wishing to replace him as Punjabi leader, the other Sikh Sardars were sided with the Afghan should he venture another attack. Meanwhile, British agents were trying to lure Ranjit away from the Afghans.

Sada Kaur propelled the young chief to become Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab but was soon estranged from her son-in-law. It was because while her own daughter Mehtab Kaur had failed to produce an heir, another wife presented the Punjabi kingdom with prince Kharrak Singh in 1802. She conveyed to the British that if they attacked Punjab, they would find her on their side. But it was too late. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was here to stay until death would tear him away.

The sadness of Nur Jahan

In December 1992, zealots in India tore down the early 16th century Babri Mosque they believed had been erected after razing an ancient temple of Lord Rama. The dust of the fallen mosque had barely settled when crazed mobs in Pakistan went after every Hindu, Jain or Sikh building regardless of the use it had been in. Among the hundreds of buildings destroyed, the beautiful baradari of Ranjit Singh too became a heap of masonry. And remained that way for a very long time.

In sharp contrast to the liveliness of Jahangir’s side, across the railway line, Nur Jahan’s tomb remains forlorn. Strangely so when it has recently been redone with red granite and white marble inlay and even a surrounding well-tended garden. It may be that the queen foresaw the abandonment that was to be her lot in death: for her tombstone she composed a verse dripping with melancholy. Annemarie Schimmel translates it: “On mine, the outsider’s grave. No candle and no light. No burnt moth wings, Nor nightingale song.”

How Lahore was named

Born in 100 CE, Ptolemy, the Greek geographer and mathematician, wrote his Geographia about the middle of the following century. In it he mentioned Labaka, a city that some scholars believe would be Lohkot or Lavakota—the fort of Loh or Lava. Now, Loh was the son of Lord Ram, who is credited with founding Lahore that still carries his name. That alone does not indicate the city’s great age. For any king or chieftain establishing their seat could name it after any religious figure regardless of how much they were separated by time. The question then is: how ancient is the city of Lahore?

Hardcore Lahoris love to proclaim their city as the only one in Pakistan in constant habitation for the last 5,000 years. In 1989 or the year after, the government of Punjab planned to celebrate Lahore’s 5,000-year festival. Accordingly, a prominent archaeologist-historian was asked to write up the history. Unaware of the desired view, the scholar wrote the truth: that Lahore was at most 2,000 years old. He was requested to rewrite his history to ‘set the record straight’. Another paper was produced declaring Lahore 5,000 years old! It was only our great good fortune that the festival was never held.

(Note: Lahore is named after a son of Ram named Loh. His elder brother Kush has given his name to the city of Qasur. In Dasam Granth coming down from Guru Gobind Singh, Guru Nanak descended from Kush while Guru Gobind Singh descended from Loh. There is a large Hindu and Muslim community living in Sindh and Indian Gujarat called Lohana, descendants of Loh. Jinnah was a Lohana, descended from Loh. His father Jinahbhai Poonja carried the name Jina, the founder of Jainism in India, which became the Jinnah suffix of Muhammad Ali Jinnah.)

Lahore of Al Beruni

Lahore came of age in the Middle Ages. We first hear its name from Abu Rehan Al Beruni, who came across the Khyber Pass in 1017. Over the next several years, he traveled extensively across India and wrote a most informed masterpiece Kitab al Hind (Book of India), covering a truly amazing range of subjects. At a few points in the book, Lauhawur “east of the Irawa[ti]” is mentioned, but always in passing. It seems to be a city that did not much impress our savant. It was clearly not a place of learning where this brilliant and ever inquisitive man would have wanted to tarry a while.

The great traveler Ibn Battuta was in our part of the world in the 1330s, and he missed Lahore. He seemed to care little or nothing for the city and expressed no desire to see it. His only mention of Lahore was in connection with a native of the city: Malik Qabula, the much-favored flask bearer to Sultan Mohammad Tughlak. In those days, Multan, Depalpur, Uch and even the now provincial little town of Tulamba were more prosperous than Lahore.

Ranjit Singh stands accused of having pilfered marble from earlier Mughal buildings to raise his pavilion in Huzuri Bagh and other buildings. In Lahore, S. M. Latif tells us the marble came from the tomb of Zebun Nisa, Aurangzeb Alamgir’s eldest daughter who, by one source, was originally named Zebinda Begum. Born in 1639, the educated, erudite and gifted poet possessed a delightful wit that shines through her verse even for one only marginally acquainted with the Persian she wrote in. Only Chauburji, the imposing gateway adding into the lost garden, remains as a famous landmark of Lahore. This, too, is now hidden from view because of the raised metro train track passing right in front of it.

Dara Shikoh and Nadira Begum

Surely the most tragic episode of Mughal history is the end of the Sufi prince Dara Shikoh and his wife Nadira Bano Begum. In 1657, the aged and ailing Shah Jahan, having ruled for 31 years, was faced with the open rebellion of his sons led by the grasping and cruel Aurangzeb. The king preferred his crown to pass on to Dara Shikoh, the eldest. A bibliophile, artist and a devotee of Sufi saint Mian Mir, Dara Shikoh, titled Shah Buland Iqbal (Lord of Exalted Fortune) by his father, was a liberal heterodox of kindly disposition. Like his ancestor Akbar, together with his wife Nadira Bano and sister, Jahan Ara Begum, he believed in religious syncretism rather than division. As the three stood beside the ailing king, Aurangzeb, whose religious views conflicted with those of his elder siblings, made ready to stage his coup.

The eighth day of June 1658, the seventh of the month of the fast, was a sad day on the field outside Samugarh. The imperial army led by Dara Shukoh faced off against the combined armies of the renegade princes Aurangzeb and Murad Buksh. The intellectual prince was no match for battle-hardened orthodox adversary. With Dara Shikoh in flight hotly pursued by Aurangzeb’s forces, the victor drove Shah Jahan to abdication. Less than two weeks after his victory at Samugarh, Aurangzeb had himself crowned with festivities that continued for a fortnight.

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