A story of our heritage

February 28, 2021

Salman Rashid’s new book is a historical and personal account of travels and cultural excavations along the Grand Trunk Road.


alman Rashid is Pakistan’s pre-eminent travel writer and the country’s most well-known traveler. His travel writing is the standard against which other travel writing on Pakistan should be judged. From Landi Kotal to Wagah: Cultural Heritage Along the Grand Trunk Road is a historical and personal account of travels and cultural excavations along the Grand Trunk Road, told at a galloping speed.

The book covers the Khyber to Wagah leg of the almost 3,500 kilometres journey along the Calcutta-Khyber Grand Trunk Road, once the main artery of the subcontinent. Rashid begins his journey at the end, in Khyber, where the Grand Trunk Road stops being the road it is across Pakistan and India and becomes a way out, as well as a way in for “nearly every influx into the subcontinent, whether peaceful migration or sanguinary invasion”.

At the start of the book, Rashid debunks the myth that Sher Shah Suri built or revived the Grand Trunk Road, and planted trees and erected kos minars along it. Sher Shah, Rashid points out, “was late by more than 1,500 years after the road was first written about as receiving royal patronage.” Rashid goes on to point out that “This road would, however, have existed long, long before that too.”

The first royal patron of the Grand Trunk Road was “the brilliant Chandragupta”, India’s first great unifier and founder of the Mauryan Empire. Rashid writes: “The administrative measures of the Mauryan Empire included, among others, a dedicated department looking after roads, taxes, land management and water.” Of course, it was then not called the Grand Trunk Road but Rajapatha, the Royal Highway. The part of the Grand Trunk Road that runs through Pakistan was called Utra Rajapatha, the Northern Royal Highway. According to Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador who arrived in India in 300 BC and stayed on for 15 years, “They constructed roads and at every ten stadia set up a pillar to show the by-roads and distance [to the next station and to outlying towns].” Only two such pillars, or kos minars, survive in Pakistan, both in Lahore.

Navigating through the tides of history and life with a keen eye, his trademark subversive humour and occasional exasperation, Rashid shows us the dramatic past of the Grand Trunk Road, or the GT Road as it is commonly referred to now. This past includes stupas, monasteries, temples, mosques, gurudwaras, churches, mausoleums, bridges, forts, caravanserais, palaces and havelis. Much of the cultural heritage that features in the book is of religious nature. The book serves to remind us that four great religions were born in the land of our ancestors, where the GT Road once flowed like a river. These religions flourished, one spreading to China and ultimately becoming the state religion, while the other enveloped South East Asia in its fold.

We learn about the Sphola stupa in Khyber Pass, its view now marred by new construction for which the remains of a nearby monastery were “cannibalised”, and about the golden age of Gandhara civilisation with Taxila at its heart. Marked now by heavy military presence, Taxila was once the abode of philosophers and home to the “oldest residential university of the subcontinent”, a place where our ancestors had declared, to quote Megasthenes: “no one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave, but that, enjoying freedom, they shall respect the equal right to it which all possess”. It was here that the great Asoka (ruled 269 to 232 BC) built “his fabulous stupa and monastery of Dharmarajika”.

In Rashid’s view, the Mughal era bridge, now known as Choa Gujjar bridge, on the once clean as a whistle Barra River is “the most picturesque with its minarets and onion domes”. He points out that Shah Daula bridge on Degh River used to have four mock turrets, of which only one remains. It was at this bridge in 1707 that one of Aurangzeb’s three surviving sons who were then engaged in a deadly war of succession after the death of the emperor, crowned himself Shah Alam. In 2015, Rashid saved the 400 years old Shah Daula bridge from demolition by “frantic and passionate pleading” to a powerful, but understanding bureaucrat who had ordered its demolition just because a new bridge had been built “a couple of hundred metres upstream”.

While writing about the “imposing gateway of Gurdwara Rori Sahib”, near Eminabad on the old GT Road, Rashid says: “Had [Anton] Gaudi passed along the Grand Trunk Road, the magnificent gateway would have astounded him for its beauty and flowing lines that seem to have been created from clay. But the material is all cut or moulded brick, finely baked to redness.”

Though we do not know who the architect of “this great fantasy” was, Rashid thinks it “more likely than not that the man was a mason — the traditional mistri”. Rashid says that “the building is a sight to be beheld, not merely to be read about or seen as an image”.

Among the numerous mosques covered in the book is the 550-years-old Lodhi mosque, near the town of Wahndo, not far from Eminabad. The cracked dome of the mosque has been repaired in recent times using “modern cement”.

About the Mariam Zamani Masjid, located outside the east gate of Lahore Fort, Rashid writes “it was the most ornate Muslim prayer house in Lahore until it was outdone by the magnificent splendour of the Wazir Khan mosque”. (Rashid calls Wazir Khan Mosque “the jewel of Lahore’’.) Originally called the Begum Shahi Masjid, Mariam Zamani Masjid was constructed during 1611-14 on the orders of Mariam Zamani, Akbar’s Hindu wife who gave birth to Jahangir. (Apart from Mariam Zamani, née Manmati, three powerful and accomplished Mughal era women make an appearance in the book: Nur Jahan, née Mehr un-Nisa; Jahan Ara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal; and Zeb un-Nisa, Aurangzeb’s daughter.)

Rashid’s deep-seated love for the land of our ancestors shines through his writing. Consider his tribute to the city of Pushpapura – City of Flowers – as Peshawar was known in ancient times. While the” imperialist Kipling called Peshawar “the city of evil countenances’’, here is Rashid, writing as a son of the land: “Peshawar is not about the clatter of armoury, the tramp of the soldiers’ feet and the raging din of battle; it is not a city of fire and the cries of dying. Peshawar is about murmured prayer, the ringing of the temple bell and the call of the minaret, the clang of the jaras … . Peshawar is about long-distance travellers, caravanserais and storytellers.”

While providing captivating glimpses of the civilisations of the past, Rashid also digs into the accumulated rubble of myths. He points out that the flag-stoned section of the GT Road near Margalla Pass is famously, but wrongly, attributed to Sher Shah, who ruled India for only five years. Rashid says Emperor Jahangir was more likely responsible for the Mughal period construction.

Rashid writes that Muizuddin Ghauri (aka Shahabuddin Mohammad) was murdered in 1206 by Khokhar Rajputs in Dhamial, “an ancient caravan stop” near Sohawa, but he was not buried at Dhamial. After the murder of the king and his three bodyguards, the “king’s attendants carried out the usual disembowelling to keep the body for the journey back to Ghazni” for burial. Rashid’s source is Minhajuddin Siraj’s Tabakat-i-Nasiri completed in 1260. The three bodyguards and the “royal entrails” were interred at Dhamial.

Writing about the current names of the gates of Rohtas Fort, Rashid says the Sohail Darwaza was once called Zohal (Saturn) Darwaza and the Chand Wali Darwaza was Darwaza Under Kot (Gateway of the Inner Fort). Rashid tells us the name change occurred “[w]hen superstition became the way of life in Pakistan”.

The book, which has come to fruition through the financial support of international donors, should be considered a clarion call to the people of Pakistan and their governments for the preservation of our heritage.

From Landi Kotal to Wagah

Cultural Heritage Along the Grand Trunk Road

Author: Salman Rashid

Publishers: UNESCO and

Sang-e-Meel Publications

Pages: 256

Price: Rs 5,000

The writer is working on a book titled Selected Writings of Inayatullah Khan Mashriqi

A story of our heritage