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.

Despite the pace, I enjoyed the breeze flowing in through my window. Flat and fertile Punjabi farms, dotted with oxen straining ahead of wooden ploughs, slipped by between the tree trunks. I dozed off, but found my sleep peopled by fiendish turban-topped drivers who laughed as they barreled their trucks toward us head-on in harrowing games of chicken. I started awake -- to find turbaned Sikh drivers laughing as they barreled their trucks toward us head-on in harrowing games of chicken. On the Grand Trunk Road every bus, truck, and jalopy must pass the vehicle ahead, and chicken is the sport of choice.

VULTURES swirled in the steely noon sky above the towers and bastions of Delhi's massive Red Fort, a grand sandstone structure that saw most of its treasures and furnishings plundered by the Persians in 1739 and during the Raj. Across from it stands an ocherous Jain temple, on the grounds of which is the Charity Birds Hospital. The Jain sect of Hinduism holds that all life is sacred. Though this is not a particularly original religious precept, the fact that the Jains have built an animal sanctuary and hired doctors to heal injured birds, rabbits, and squirrels is impressive. I wanted to see this place.

I deposited my shoes and leather belt at the temple gate (no items made from animal products are allowed inside) and mounted the stairs to the hospital. A girl ran past me in tears, carrying a partridge in cupped hands. Upstairs a young Hindu veterinarian (the only Jain involved is the manager) carefully pinched the bird's beak and administered medicine with a dropper.

I wandered through the intensive-care ward, a narrow tiled room with shoebox-sized birdcages on one side and walk-in cages on the other. Melancholy parrots pecked at mangos; mange-ridden rabbits ran up to the cage mesh to sniffle at me as I passed. Most distressing, pigeons stood with their heads drooping on necks as flaccid as rubber bands, blinking helplessly, looking at me with their eyes upside down. The vet came up and introduced himself as Dr. Vijay. "They are suffering from encephalomalacia, a common problem among pigeons," he said.

An aquiline shriek resounded from the end of the ward. In a walk-in cage a tawny eagle, huge and powerfully built, was trying and failing to flap a cast-bound wing. My eyes scanned the wall above him and fell upon murals showing ceiling fans slicing up hapless swallows, peacocks pruning their tails, hawks tearing into squirming sparrows. The eagle was a flesh-eater, and the mural above him, with its depiction of one of his carnivorous fellows, seemed to consign him to the category of an ornithological Genghis Khan. I asked Dr. Vijay how he felt about this patient.

"Well, in truth we cannot permit him to stay long, because of his lifestyle."

"What do you feed him?"


"You feed eagles bread? Do they eat it?"

"They prefer other things, but we cannot allow them to pursue their way of life here. It is against our philosophy."

The eagle shrieked again, extending his yard-long healthy wing and lurching about. A slab of chapati lay untouched in the corner of his cage.

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

Photograph by Jeffrey Tayler  In Calcutta's Maidan park,
  soccer and the Victorial Memorial

IN Agra I toured the Taj Mahal, and Itmad-ud-daulah, the predecessor to the Taj, and Agra Fort, all Mogul. But, hankering after Varanasi, 400 miles down the GT, I did not linger. My bus clanked out of town under a sky that hung like a sepia shroud over wattle-and-straw hutments scattered across endless flat earth that was dun-colored and desiccated in some places, marked with pale green in others. This was the Gangetic plain, home to 300 million Indians, the cradle of Hindu civilization. It was this plain that the English left for cool Himalayan hill stations at just this time of year. But the heat -- four months of humid 112° weather -- is not only the enemy of unacclimatized colonizers; too powerful to adapt to, it is also an intruder in the lives of Indians. Around me passengers fanned themselves feverishly and gulped bottled water, sweated and complained. "The heat!"

THE City of Temples. The City of Light. The City of Shiva the Destroyer. The tirtha, or crossing place, where mortals may consort with the gods. Varanasi has stood at the center of the Hindu universe, on the northern bank of Ganga Ma, or Mother Ganges, for almost 3,000 years. It is also the City of Death, where the dying gather to attain moksha, or enlightenment, which is guaranteed if they die and are cremated on the shores of the Ganges. Enlightenment means liberation from the onerous cycle of reincarnation. Devout Hindus come for an expiatory dip in the river's green-brown flux, descending to the waters on the ghats, or step landings, that cover the northern bank.

Early on the day after my arrival I headed down to the river. As the rising sun suffused the auroral haze with heat and glare, my boatman, a dwarf by the name of Bhaiyalal, with teeth stained red from chewing betel nuts, poled our skiff away from the growing mayhem of Dashashwamedha Ghat.

I had taken a taxi from my hotel to Dashashwamedha Road, alighting at the point beyond which vehicles are not allowed. But there was other traffic. Dhoti- and sari-garbed pilgrims, their heads shaved, the soles of their feet splashed with a hot-pink dye called alta, carried pots and clay vessels and effigies of the gods, jamming the narrow lanes and hustling toward the river. I found myself pressed in among them, neither sharing nor understanding their excitement, feeling most of all bewildered and out of place. A steel railing divided the length of the staircase leading to the ghat; along it squatted ash-covered fakirs and naked Hindu ascetics who held out tin bowls into which the pilgrims tossed rupees in a ceaseless din of clinks and pings.

At Dashashwamedha Ghat I met Bhaiyalal. We settled on a small fee for his boating services and shoved off.

Bathers, many laughing, some boisterous, were splashing their way out into the murky waters around us, cupping their hands and reciting their hymns, oblivious of Bhaiyalal's poling maneuvers and my presence. Some dunked their vessels and poured water into their mouths; others submerged sacks of clothes or simply soaped up and scrubbed themselves down. A few released diyas, buoyant palm-sized clay dishes matted with marigold blossoms and containing lit candles, as offerings to Ganga Ma. To give the toddler selling the diyas a bit of business, I did the same.

We pulled out beyond the bathers. Along the high curve of the bank, draped with swatches of sodden mist, rose Varanasi's Old City, an agglomeration of orange-steepled temples, burnt-sienna hostels, and houses with rotting teak shutters closed to the river -- the holiest sight in the Hindu world. Bhaiyalal paddled with the current; we drifted east. Chants echoed across the waters, which rippled as slowly as oil in the still air.

"Sir! Hello, sir!"

A corpulent boatman in Levis and Adidas was coming toward us. He put down his oar and gestured at the postcards of the ghat, the plastic temple figurines, and the rolls of Kodak film he had arranged on his bow. "You will be needing souvenir, no? Ten rupees Temple of Kali, fifty rupees a set . . ."

"No, thanks."

He persisted, and I ended up rebuking him sharply -- we were, after all, on a holy river, not in a souk. We left him bobbing amid the diyas. But soon others were besieging us with similar spiels. The floating pitchmen accept no semblance of piety from non-Hindus. Traditionally, Hinduism does not seek converts. Non-Hindus remain fundamentally separate and different from those born with a caste. In a way, a commercial response to my presence made sense.

Eventually we drew near a concave assembly of soot-blackened buildings overlooking a dozen fires stoked by sooty men -- the cremation ghats of Manikarnika. Ashes covered the banks in waist-high piles. Untouchable laborers sank shovels into these, pursuing the solemn business of dispatching the deceased into the current. Four men bore a body wrapped in orange -- a woman, Bhaiyalal said, noting the color -- on a bamboo stretcher for a pre-cremation dunk in the river.

I told Bhaiyalal to return to Dashashwamedha Ghat. I had seen enough.

FROM Varanasi the Grand Trunk Road crosses Bihar State -- a land of scrub jungle and torrid coal-black hills, caste warfare, and dacoity -- and then winds its way southeast into West Bengal, through the swamps and paddies of the Ganges delta. In Howrah, the city facing Calcutta across the Hooghly River, the GT ends. By Indian standards Calcutta is young, dating back to the arrival of the British, in the seventeenth century. From then until independence the city was an abode of great wealth and sophistication, a regional entrepôt and a locus of power, and home to an educated elite. It was Partition, in which the majority-Muslim territory to the east broke away from India and became East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), that sent millions of refugees into Calcutta and gave it a reputation for poverty. Ever since, predictions of collapse, implosion, and urban Armageddon have been made about it, but Calcutta goes on.

By the time I arrived in Calcutta, the heat along the GT had exhausted me, and the alienation I had felt in Varanasi had depressed me; I had not expected that India would prove so difficult to appreciate. Calcutta restored me. In an old monograph about the city, I had read of a certain nineteenth-century marble palace built off Chittaranjan Avenue by a prominent Bengali landowner, Raja Rajendro Mullick Bahadur. This was said to be stocked with priceless objets d'art from Renaissance Europe. A taxi driver found it for me. A dollar's worth of baksheesh to a guard procured entry (technically, one needs permission from the authorities or the family to visit), and I walked onto the grounds. The palace, standing behind a derelict fountain flanked by palms, was indeed of marble, though it was so soot-blackened as to be almost indistinguishable from the tenements nearby; its latticework shutters were rotten and filthy.

Then I walked inside. Crystal chandeliers hung in tiled ballrooms, ceiling-high mirrors of Belgian glass reflected Ming vases and bronze statues of Napoleon and Queen Victoria. Busts of hauntingly beautiful Italian mistresses filled dark corridors. A painting by Rubens, The Marriage of St. Catherine, covered one wall; well-executed canvases hung on others. As I wandered through half a dozen chambers chock-full of exquisite works of art, I felt a growing affinity with their deceased collector, sensing the aesthetic rush he must have felt in their presence. Doubtless Bahadur had been enraptured by his collection -- its profusion and disorder spoke of his zeal. I pictured him a recluse, perhaps half mad, collecting these paintings and statues to create a dimly lit but richly appointed paradise in which to live and die.

The next evening I made my way down Nehru Road toward the Maidan, the 1,280-acre public park that serves as the lungs of Calcutta. The temperature, moderated by the proximity of the Bay of Bengal, was a mere 90°. Manicured grassy expanses stretched away toward the Hooghly, and I set out to traverse them. In the last light, cricketers and soccer players were winding up their games beneath the palms; polo enthusiasts were practicing their moves, the muffled thunder of their horses' hooves on turf mingling with the whoosh-clock! of mallets passing through the air to strike the bouncing balls. Monsoon clouds obscured the sunset. I halted, breathing in the fresh air, soothed by the sounds of the mallets and the hooves.

Suddenly, above the great steel canti-levers of Howrah Bridge, the gray clouds in the west lit up lava-orange, as if the sun were a nova, and then went dark. Raindrops -- the first of the monsoon -- began pattering my forehead. The monsoon would move across India, from Calcutta to Amritsar, to soak the parched land along the Grand Trunk Road. The Ganges would rise and spill over its banks and fertilize the plain with silt, thereby renewing the annual cycle -- older than the Raj and older than the Moguls, older even than Varanasi -- on which the subcontinent depends.

Jeffrey Tayler lives in Moscow. His first book, was published last year.

Photographs by Jeffrey Tayler.

The Atlantic Monthly; November 1999; India's Grand Trunk Road - 99.11 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 5; page 42-48.