Monday, 13 June 2011

Grand trunk road kabul to Bengal,Mughals, Sher Shah Sur, Chandragupta Maurya

The Grand Trunk Road:

The picture below was taken in 1984 during my visit to Taxila in Pakistan. It shows part of Grand trunk Road, which is one of South Asia’s longest and oldest roads stretching between Kabul in the west and Bengal in the east. The Information board near the road describes that the road was built by the Mughal kings- though there is no evidence or account given by any historian to this effect. However, given that Pakistan’s history has been systematically and deliberately re-written over the last 30 or so years to meet very particular religious and political ends, it is perhaps not surprising that the road’s history was fabricated on this official board as well.

Not withstanding the false information provided here, it did amuse my 3 year old son (standing near the board) to no end that “from” was incorrectly spelt as “form”. We had to make him quiet by saying that “the Mother tongue in Pakistan is Urdu & not English”.

In India, we were taught in history classes that this road was built by an Afghan king, Sher Shah Sur, who ruled India in 1500 A.D. I am, however, not fully convinced with this claim either.

First, let us take the evidence supplied by numerous  Indian historians who have given accounts of the advent of  Sher Shah Sur rule in India according to which, Sur, also known as Suri or Sher Khan, was an Afghan noble who annexed Southern Bihar & Bengal from Humayun (son of first Mughal king Babur) in 1539. By 1540, he had defeated the opium addicted Mughal king who had  run away to Lahore and then to Kabul, finally taking refuse with Shah Tahmasp, the Safavid ruler  in Iran. Humayun remained in exile for 15 years

However, Sher Shah Suri alias Sher Khan ruled Northern India only for 5 years from 1540 to 1545. On his death, the throne at Delhi passed to his son Islam Shah Sur, who in the course of 8 years reign was not able to consolidate his centralised rule. On the death of Islam Shah  in 1553, the Sur domains were divided by treaty into the Punjab, Agra & Delhi, Bihar with some Eastern Region & Bengal. Each domain was ruled by a son or relative of Sher Shah Sur. The decline soon started & thus, Humayun who had reorganised his army by then was able to regain the lost territory by mid 1555.

Thus, given the extraordinarily short period of his reign, the theory that this grand length of road was built by Sher Shah Sur, seems fairly unlikely and does not really hold ground.

 So who actually built this road?

Those of us who have read the history of Ancient India will remember that the Maurian dynasty started by Chandragupta Maurya in 321 B.C., had acquired and united most of the sub- continent under a single empire, and after the defeat of  the Greek Seleucus Nikator, even the trans- Indus provinces (which today would cover part of Afghanistan) formed part of its vast territories.

Chandragupta Maurya’s son, Bindusar and his grand son, Ashoka further expended the empire. In 260 B.C. Ashoka managed to defeat the most powerful king of Kalinga, after which all other kings of South India also accepted his authority. Ashoka’s son Mahindra in his turn extended the mauryan influence all the way up to Ceylon

Historians also confirm that Ashoka maintained friendly relations with his contemporaries in the Hellenic world with whom he exchanged diplomatic and trade relations. The most prominent amongst them were Antiochus II Theos of Syria (260-246 B.C.), the grandson of Seleucus Nikatoe, Ptolemy III Philadelphus of Egypt (285-247 B.C.); Antigonus Gonatus of Macedonia (276-239B.C.), Megas of Cyrene, and Alexander of Epirus. Communications with the outside world were by now well developed. As a result, there was regular movement of people from Bengal to North West provinces and further towards West Asia for trade, pilgrimage, education etc. The Chief Advisor of Chandragupta Maurya, Kautalya (also known as Chanakya) himself was from Taxila University who regularly travelled between Taxila & Magadh.

Therefore, one can conclude beyond doubt that there had existed some sort of an artery between what is now eastern Bengal & western Kabul even in ancient times. This suggests that rather than necessarily building the road medieval and modern kings probably just repaired and/or realigned portions of it.