Rudyard Kipling described the Grand Trunk Road as “such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”. In his finest work, Kim, Kipling wrote” Brahmins and bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters – all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood. And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles – such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.”
Popularly known as the ‘GT’ Road and officially termed National Highway (NH) 1 & 2, it was first built during the Mauryan Empire around 400 B.C. and restored by Sher Shah Suri around 1530, selecting the present route through Hazaribagh instead of Gaya.
During the rule of the East India Company (1757-1857) and subsequently under the Crown (1857-1947), it was generally neglected till 1914 when pressure from motor vehicle owners forced its reconstruction. The expansion into a four-lane-driveway of international results was solely the result of the vision of former Prime Minister Atal Vihari Vajpayee who launched the golden quadrilateral project during his tenure.
According to the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, the British government had set up a Department for the Development of Mechanical Transport Services with the famous Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, a brigadier general and one of the most influential members of the British establishment as adviser. Among its members were two important Indians – Sir M M Bhawnaggree and Sir Krishna Govinda Gupta. (Incidentally, Beaulieu is home to one of the largest and most valuable motor car museums in the world.)
Anyway, Montagu lamented way back in 1911-12 that roads in India in general seemed “to be designed for people and animals on foot and not wheeled transport”; in other words, it was not meant for cars, trucks and buses. Nonetheless, companies operating in Asansol, Ranigunj and Jharia managed to work out a road transport system for their staff and goods.
Montagu was therefore wrong when he stated that “few traces of roads were to be seen”. He possibly made this mistake on account of the fact that in the flood plains of Bengal, the shifting of rivers and annual flooding wiped out roads every few years if not every year. Technology too or the lack of it was another factor.
Thanks to Montagu’s pressure and the growing efficiency of road transport, restoration of GT Road began, using two new technologies. Dynamite was used to blast hills and rocks in order to create straight, better roads. Secondly, tar was introduced to build roads with proper drainage and backing through a process quite different from systems used in Britain. The restored GT Road of the 1930s, was still a single lane two-truck wide highway. Though the European countries and USA were then building four lane highways, India did not get any because of British misrule. On the plus side, the roads lasted longer.
Old vs New Road Technology
The major reason why old roads used to crumble down was because roads till 1920s were built using, not tar (which was very expensive and not imported by the British), but a product made by sugar and molasses factories and mixed with sand. Hence, a road surface would last for six months in the dry season and a few weeks if it rained! However, as Montagu pointed out, excellent roads seemed to exist in all the rocky and hilly areas, where they were the most difficult to build. In fact, Montagu mistakenly called the hilly roads ‘Buddhist’ roads as British scholars of the day thought shrines in the hills or in rocky areas, all belonged to the Buddhist or Jain while those in the plains were either Hindu or Muslim monuments.
Montagu’s committee noted the excellent quality and long life of the ancient roads. They were built by not blasting and drilling or excavating “but by burning out”, Montagu noted. Huge fires would be lit using wood or oil directly till the rock or ground became very hot. Then cold water was suddenly poured so that the rock cracked and bedrock was exposed. The ancient road builders were so skilful that utilising these methods they created a flat surface that were used by the British as supply routes while building the new roads.
Montagu grudgingly admitted, “It was noticeable from an engineering point of view, how well these old roads were made, showing that the constructors in those days had among them engineers of practical if not theoretical experience”.
The restoration of the G T Road in the 1930s encouraged more people to own motor cars as well as opt for travelling by road. It opened up new holiday areas along the highway like Hazaribagh, Palamau and Ranchi.