Grand Trunk Road-UTTARAPATH

  • By Kamlesh Tripathi
  • December 10, 2022
  • Who all built the Grand Trunk road over the last 2000 plus years and what was the road route.

The Grand Trunk Road was formerly known as Uttarapath, Sadak-e-Azam, or Badshahi Sadak. It is one of Asia’s oldest and longest major roads. For at least 2,500 years, it has linked the Indian subcontinent with Central Asia. It runs roughly 2,400 kilometres from Chittagong, now in Bangladesh, to Kabul in Afghanistan, passing through Allahabad (now Prayagraj) Howrah, Delhi, and Amritsar in India and Lahore and Peshawar in Pakistan.


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.


Chandragupta Maurya of the Mauryan Empire, built this highway along the ancient route called Uttarapath or Northern Road in the 3rd century BCE, extending from the mouth of the Ganges in Bangladesh (also called the Gangetic delta) to the northwest frontier of the Empire. Further improvements to this road were made under Ashoka. It was rebuilt many times under Sher Shah Suri, the Mughals and even the British along a similar route. The old route was realigned by Sher Shah Suri to Sonargaon in central Bangladesh and Rohtas in Bihar. The Afghan end of the road was once rebuilt under Mahmud Shah Durrani of the Afghan Empire. The road was again considerably rebuilt in the British period between 1833 and 1860.


The road coincides with the current National Highway N1 (Chittagong to Dhaka), and then N4 & N405 (Dhaka to Sirajganj in Bangladesh), N507 (Sirajganj to Natore again in Bangladesh) and N6 (Natore to Rajshahi in Bangladesh and towards Purnea in India). The road further moves on NH 12 (Purnea, Bihar to Bakkhali, West Bengal), then NH 27 (Purnea to Patna), NH 19 (Kolkata to Agra), NH 44 (Agra to Jalandhar via New Delhi, Sonipat, Panipat, Ambala and Ludhiana) and NH 3 (Jalandhar to Attari, Amritsar in India and towards Lahore in Pakistan) via Wagah. Then you have N-5 Lahore, Gujranwala, Gujrat (this Gujrat is a city in Punjab province in Pakistan), Jhelum, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Khyber Pass (towards Jalalabad in Afghanistan) in Pakistan and highway AH1 (that is Torkham-Jalalabad to Kabul) to Gazani in Afghanistan.


Over the centuries, the road acted as one of the major trade routes in the region and facilitated both travel and postal communication. The Grand Trunk Road is still used for transportation in the present-day Indian subcontinent, where parts of the road have been widened and included in the national highway system.


The Buddhist literature and Indian epics such as Mahabharata provide evidence of the Grand Trunk Road even before the Mauryan Empire. The road connected India’s eastern region with Bactria, an ancient region in Central Asia, north of Hindu Kush.


The road before the modern Grand Trunk road was based on the highway running from Susa (a city in Iran) to Sardis in Turkey’s Manisa Province. During the time of the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BCE, overland trade between India and several parts of Western Asia and the markets of Bactria went through the cities of the northwest, primarily Takshashila (Pakistan) and Purushapura (modern-day Peshawar in present day Pakistan).

Takshashila was well connected by roads with other parts of the Mauryan Empire. The Mauryas had maintained this very ancient highway from Takshashila to Patliputra (present-day Patna in India).


Chandragupta Maurya had a whole army of officials overseeing the maintenance of this road as told by Greek diplomat Megasthenes who spent fifteen years at the Mauryan Court. Constructed in eight stages, this road is said to have connected the cities of  Purushapura,  Takshila, Hastinapura, Kanyakubja, Prayag, Patliputra and Tamralipta also known as Tamluk in West Bengal, a distance of around 2,600 kilometres (1,600 miles).


Chandragupta built over the ancient Uttarapatha, which was mentioned by Panini, an ancient Sanskrit philologist, grammarian, and a revered scholar in ancient India. Emperor Ashoka has recorded in his edict about having planted trees, building wells at every half kos and many nimisdhayas, which are often translated as rest houses along the route. Emperor Kanishka was also known to have controlled the Uttarapatha.


Sher Shah Suri, the medieval ruler of the Sur Empire (Sur Empire was an empire established by a Muslim dynasty of Afghan origin), is known to have rebuilt Chandragupta’s Royal Road in the 16th century. The old route was further re-routed at Sonargaon and Rohtas and its breadth was increased.

Baori and Sarai at Orchha near Jhansi in Madhya Pradesh. 

Fruit trees and shade trees were planted. At every 2 kms, a Sarai was built. The number of kos minars (the medieval Indian milestones along the Grand Trunk Road) and even the baolis were increased. Gardens were also built alongside some sections of the highway. Those who stopped at the Sarai were provided free food. Sher Shah Suri’s son Islam Shah Suri also constructed an additional Sarai in-between every Sarai originally built by Sher Shah Suri on the road towards Bengal. More Sarais were further built by the Mughals also. Jahangir under his reign issued a decree that all Sarais be built of burnt brick (toughened bricks) and stone. Broad-leaved trees were planted in the stretch between Lahore and Agra. Jahangir also built bridges and overall water bodies that were situated on the path of the highways. The route was referred to as ‘Sadak-e-Azam’ by Suri, and ‘Badshahi Sadak’ by the Mughals.


In the 1830s the East India Company started a programme of metalled road construction, for both commercial and administrative purposes. The road, now named Grand Trunk Road, from Calcutta, through Delhi, to Peshawar (present-day Pakistan) was rebuilt at a cost of £1000/mile. A Public Works Department along with a training institute (the erstwhile Thomson College of Civil Engineering which is now known as the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee) was founded to train and employ local surveyors, engineers, and overseers, to perform the work, and in future maintain it along with other roads. 


The road is mentioned in a number of literary works including those of Foster and Rudyard Kipling. Kipling described the road as: “Look! Look again! and chumars, 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.”


The ensemble of historic sites along the road in India was submitted to the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2015, under the title ‘Sites along the Uttarapath, Badshahi Sadak, Sadak-e-Azam, Grand Trunk Road’.


Psephologists sometimes refer to the area around the GT Road as, ‘GT Road Ambala to Sonepat sector, which has 28 legislative assembly seats’ in the context of elections. During the elections in Haryana, the area on either side of the GT Road form constituencies where there is no dominance of one caste or community. So, it is referred to as the ‘GT road belt of Haryana’


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 30 November 2022 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.

Receive Site Updates