Cracks on a historical highway
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Punjab's lone expert in this field who first traced this entire 700-km route way back in 1979 as a part of his doctoral thesis, Parihar says he has lost count of the number of times he has travelled on this stretch to record what is left of the sarais (resting places for travellers), kos minars (milestones set up at each kos which measures to four kilometres), baolis (stepwells) and bridges built by the Mughals. His most recent trip was last year. Parihar has compiled his recordings in a collection called Land Transport in Muhgal India: Agra-Lahore Mughal Highway and its Architectural Remains. He has six books to his credit, including the soon-to-be-released Architecture of Punjab.
The Mughal route, more popularly known as the Grand Trunk Road (GT Road) or National Highway I, says Parihar, was not built by Sher Shah Suri. "This road was referred to as 'Uttar Path' during the times of Kautilya. Travellers and invaders have been using this route much before Sher Shah Suri. Moreover, the concept of using bricks to construct the structures came in during the rule of Jahangir. Even Akbar did not construct brick structures along the highway. The original route begins from Agra and goes through Mathura, Faridabad, Delhi, Sonepat, Panipat, Karnal, Dhanesar and Ambala, entering Punjab at Shambhu. It then heads to Rajpura, Khanna, Ludhiana, Phillaur, Noormahal, Sultanpur Lodhi, Tarn Taran, Raja Tal and then, after travelling for some 24 kilometres, it ends at Lahore in Pakistan," says Parihar.
What is left of the once rich heritage are sarais at Azmabad, Mathura (the army owns this sarai), Kosi, Chatha, Badarpur outside Delhi, Taraori, Thanesar, Shambhu (an intact sarai), Rajpura, Sarai Banaja (only a gate is left), Sarai Lashkar Khan and a sarai at Doraha, which became popular after Aamir Khan's Rang De Basanti. Then there is a sarai at Phillaur, which is now a part of the Punjab Police Academy, one at Noormahal, village Mallian Kalan, Sultanpur Lodhi, Fatehabad (only one gate left), village Nurdi (only one gate left) and Sarai Amanat Khan.
"But we have close to 100 kos minars intact which can and should be preserved. Some of these kos minars are under the Archeological Survey of India and some under the state government. There are some like the one at the bus stand of Sultanpur Lodhi, which is falling apart and has become a garbage dump for residents. The government can pitch in to save what is left of our sarais and kos minars," says Parihar.
"We need to protect our heritage . It is an integral part of our history. These structures tell us how buildings have changed over time. These structures also hold a great meaning in local history. I have seen mosques and old buildings where people who occupy them now have either painted them or torn down the old structure without realising its heritage value. The sarai at Doraha had some very beautiful inscriptions done in marble and even murals, but they are no longer there. Had some agency stepped in at the right time, we could have saved all this for our future generations to see. The land prices in Punjab have gone up so much that anyone who can, tries to grab whatever land is available and this becomes easy when there is no one checking them," says Parihar.
He sounds a note of caution. "Old havelis, mosques, sarais and similar other structures built during the Mughal times are fast disappearing. Punjab needs to be more aware of this, especially since it doesn't have too many heritage buildings or structures. This is all we have left," says Parihar.