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Indian Roads

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 Lover’s 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 along!

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 Maurya’s court and he recorded a Rajamarga or the king’s 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 Chandragupta’s 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 Ashoka’s 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, Kautilya’s 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 long roads.

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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