We take roads for granted. But only when you have to
cut through a jungle or wade through the waters do you realize the
beauty of a well laid out road, stretching itself out before you.
The thread that
binds the nation together. This is truly a deserving metaphor
for a road network that is one of the largest in the world. Its grand
system of national highways, state highways and the roads that run
endlessly within cities. Even the little by lanes which is most
metros have become parking space! The statistics are impressive:
about 34,608 km of national highways, 128,622 km of state highways,
and an informal network of about 2,737,080 km, the total exceeding
3.01 million kilometres. Looking at these numbers one would almost
think the whole country is paved and ready to be driven on!
Where do they go to where
do they end? Logic states that they probably do have beginnings and
endings but as one starts traveling on the Grand Trunk Road which
stretches all the way from Delhi to Calcutta on can see infinity.
The number of roads have
nevertheless not kept in pace with the increase in vehicles. So a
phenomenon that has come to stay for a while is the traffic jam.
These jams are steadily increasing in volume and time and threaten to
engulf most of the city traffic in the urban centres and so
alternative modes of transport are coming up. And yet amidst all
this, many roads retain their charm, some because of the many trees
on either side of them, some because of their quaint names and some
others because of their majestic appearance. Rajpath, the road
leading down from Rashtrapathi Bhavan, the presidential house in
Delhi, to India Gate is a majestic one. It has a stature of its own.
Look then at the road called Lovers Lane.. it runs through the
Delhi ridge and is really secluded and romantic!
Roads and romance have
been fairly closely linked! In ancient times too there were roads and
in Indian poetry the idea of a woman waiting for her beloved and
keeping her eyes fixed on the pathway is a common one. Historians
have reason to believe that Harappa and Mohenjodro, the two great
cities of Indus valley civilization dating to 5000 BC-2,500 BC had
road maps as a part of their city plan. Vedic literature, too, has
references. Pushan is said to be the god of pathways and roads!
Pushan is also referred to as the sun in other instances. There were
prayers addressed to Gods to give mortals comfortable, wide and
non-thorny pathways for travel.
In Bihar, south-east of
Patna is a road in a place called Rajgir which was built by a ruler
called Bimbisara in the 6th century BC. It is still in
use! In all ancient texts travel is mentioned. Some refer to the many
elephants and caravan loads that travelled and some others mention
the route they took. Early Buddhist texts refer to a few trunk and
ancillary roads which existed between 700-185 BC. It is said in a
Shahnama written by Persian poet, Firdausi, that Persian King
Darius III asked for a, a camel with the pace of wind to
be sent to him. Obviously there was a pathway for the animal to fly
During the first century
AD the Mauryan empire, one of the most successful empires and among
the largest, had roads which connected many important centres. By now
roads seem to had become passé. They are mentioned as many and
connecting many important trade centres. The Greek ambassador,
Megasthenes, was sent to Chandragupta Mauryas court and he
recorded a Rajamarga or the kings highway which was also
a trade route and a precursor to the modern grand trunk road. It was
nearly 22 km wide and 2,400 km in length with a pillar every 1.8 km.
It had trees, wells and rest houses on either side. Any traffic jam
on the Rajamarga was liable to punishment! And of course it goes
without saying that maintenance of roads was a significant feature of
Amuryan administration. This tradition continued and Chandraguptas
grandson. Asoka, who was a great and compassionate ruler strengthened
the system immensely. He erected huge monoliths across the country
and ensured that there were good roads for his men to travel upon. He
had given special and very strict instructions that there should be a
Banyan tree every 1.5 km and also well maintained rest houses and
watering stations. There is story that many centuries later a king
wanted to remove one of Ashokas wayside pillars. He had to use
2400 men to lift it. Judging by the weight of the pillar the road
must have been sufficiently strong and wide to bear its weight.
State roads or
rashtrapatha linked smaller distances.
Another text, Kautilyas
Arthasastra which is a treatise on good administration, talks
of how there were different roads for different purposes. There was a
road marked for cows, one for goats, one for cart tracks, one for
walks and others for cremation
If Kings and Emperors
built roads, there are also stories of how saints traversed them and
so prove their existence. Sankara, a great south Indian philosopher,
traversed the whole length and breadth of the country setting up five
very famous pilgrimage centres. He did all his traveling before the
age of 32, when he died. So that is eloquent of how many roads must
have been there for all his journey was accomplished on foot.
The longest road in India
was built by an emperor Sher Shah Suri. He laid the road between
Dacca and Indus running through Agra and Delhi! He built four such
By the Mughal period
there was such hectic traffic on the roads, that a watchman was
appointed and each road was guarded for the safety of travellers.
With the coming of the
British, all these systems disappeared. The history of roads became
less personalized and caring. They continued to serve the purpose but
without acting as a means by itself.
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