India's Grand Trunk Road

On the subcontinent's most historic highway a traveler experiences squalor and splendor alike
(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Photograph by Jeffrey Tayler  Nine hundred pounds of gold leaf are
  reflected in the waters of the
  Golden Temple

ACROSS the emerald pool fell a shimmering image of lotus-shaped cupolas and copper-gilt walls. Dhoti-clad men lowered themselves on chains into the water to perform ablutions; women in saris murmured prayers in Punjabi. Such a domain of peace and piety -- the Golden Temple, the sanctum sanctorum of Sikhism -- had been impossible to imagine while navigating the clamorous lanes of Amritsar outside. The temple was orderly, efficient, with gurus on duty in shrines around its sides, and with Sikh bookstores and a museum of Sikh history at its entrance. Sikh guards, dressed in robes of alabaster white and turbans of royal blue, patrolled the chalk-soft marble walkways with spears, enforcing a discipline and solemnity foreign to places of worship elsewhere in India.

India has manifold communities, and the Sikhs are among the most prosperous, hardworking, and insular of them. But it was not specifically an interest in Sikhs that drew me to Amritsar during the recent hot season (lasting roughly from April to July), before the monsoon. Rather, my motive for coming was to travel the road across northern India that begins in the Sikh state, the Punjab. The road had captured my imagination years ago, when I read Rudyard Kipling's Kim. At the beginning of the century Kipling called it "a wonderful spectacle.... without crowding.... green-arched, shade-flecked ... a river of life ... the backbone of all Hind." But India's National Highway No. 1, alias the Grand Trunk Road, or simply the GT, presented me with a less than grand first impression when I saw it on my way to the temple. Careering down the GT's sun-warped macadam were legions of trucks and rattling buses manned by drivers whose respect for the sanctity of life and limb put me in mind of the marauding barbarians of subcontinental yore. Mud-splattered buffalo jostled their way among swerving auto-rickshaws. Brahmin cows ambled down the middle of the road, pondering their world as they chewed cud and disrupted traffic. Its dangers aside, the GT remains, as Kipling wrote, "the road of Hindustan" along which "all India spread out to left and right." What's more, it runs through many of India's most historic places, including Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi, the holiest city of Hinduism, and ends just beyond Calcutta, the capital of the British Raj.

Geography has destined the GT to play a role in the history of India in every age. Since the Aryan invasion of the subcontinent, 3,500 years ago, the natural route that starts at the Khyber Pass and sweeps east, between the Himalayas and the Thar Desert onto the Gangetic plain, has served as a corridor for the movement of travelers, goods, armies, and ideas. Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism all developed in its environs, and Muslim proselytizers traveled it on their missions. Since Partition, in 1947, Pakistan has controlled the 300-mile segment between Peshawar and Lahore, but the other 1,250 miles of the GT still link six Indian states. It is the lifeline of northern India.

Religious animosity along the Grand Trunk Road has caused much bloodshed, and nowhere more than in the Punjab. In 1984 Sikh separatists seized the Golden Temple, and the Indian government, in Operation Blue Star, blasted them out, killing more than 2,000 people. A few months later Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the assault, was assassinated in revenge by her Sikh bodyguards. The temple has since been repaired, and the Punjab is now at peace. But when I walked into the Akal Takht, the second most sacred shrine on the grounds of the Golden Temple, I found a guru ritualistically brandishing swords, sabers, and daggers, and explaining to the assembled company the bloody history of each weapon. A middle-aged Sikh introduced himself as Jatinder and said to me in hushed, stern tones, "Look at these weapons. We do not advocate war. But when you are attacked, you must fight, and fight like a lion. Hand to hand." Sikhs, he said, had cultivated a certain militancy out of necessity, having been much persecuted over the centuries by their neighbors. Hence the discipline, the patrolling guards, the temple's rare emphasis on order.

A FEW days later, on the ashen lot of Amritsar's Roadway Station, I boarded a serviceable gray bus marked STATE TRANSPORT for my first trip on the Grand Trunk Road. A succession of chanting coconut vendors, importunate nut peddlers, and itinerant cucumber salesmen, their skinned oblong wares dispensed with pinches of salt from grimy fingers, meandered up and down the aisle. A man displayed a selection of plastic fans, and I bought one. The heat was terrific, well over 112 °, and the humidity debilitating; I yearned to get moving. It looked as though we would be going nowhere soon, however -- there was no driver about. I stepped off the bus to stretch my legs.

I should not have underestimated the Sikh penchant for discipline. At the exact departure time a turbaned Sikh, seemingly in one motion, flung open the driver's door and hurled himself into his seat, started the engine, blasted his horn, and hit the accelerator. As I leaped aboard, vendors jumped out. I stumbled to my seat, my hair sprinkled with nuts. Ahead of us carts scattered and merchants darted for their lives. Minutes later we sped onto the eucalyptus-lined tarmac, forcing our way between lazy bullock carts and wobbling bicycles, overloaded auto-rickshaws and imperious cows. Passenger cars the driver simply drove off the road with a flourish of his horn and a shake of his fist.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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