Notes from NH8
A road, especially in India, reveals itself as a time capsule capable of transporting one back by almost centuries.
National Highway 8 distinguishes itself for anchoring the future from the same thread that, when tugged, opens up one of the most impressive clan histories. The eight-lane expressway from Delhi to Gurgaon windows the future with high-rises and multinational companies constellating it. At Gurgaon, the highway is lined by remarkable futuristic buildings, including one of the world’s eco-friendliest.
Gradually, the highway tapers down to four lanes and the landscape steps down accordingly; the sleek Hondas and Toyotas give way to Marutis and, at times, to camel carts; the towering offices dissolve into intermittent mustard fields. The road passes through the Shekhawati region and leads to the historical city of Jaipur, a city that retains a bit of the past. Approaching Jaipur is the old city, nestling the Amer fort that was given its final touch in 1592 by Man Singh, one of Akbar’s nine courtiers. Amer fort was witness to no great war and was presided over by amicable Rajput-Mughal relations. NH 8 thus takes the time traveler from the future near the capital to a medieval history within the span of a few hours.
I continued my journey on NH 8. The greenery around me was fast disappearing, replaced with an earthy brown.
I reached the city of Ajmer in the evening, when the coolness of the settling dusk had whipped the city into a frenzy. I walked from the train station towards the Ajmer Sharif dargah. I needn’t ask direction for it seemed everyone moved in one direction, shoulder to shoulder in these narrow lanes. When I found the dargah, I settled in against a wall, and closed my eyes. All around me, there was activity, but inside me a calming silence was taking form. Here I was, in a place of worship of a religion not mine. And yet, the place, the people and the faith they carry in them felt familiar.
Isn’t that the beauty of Indian roads, for they connect not just cities, but bridge the gaps between cultures, faith and people.
NH 8 then takes us to Chittaurgarh, a town that was once the centre of acrimony between the Rajputs and Mughals. Chittaurgarh was thrice put under Mughal siege and each time fought back, choosing death to surrender. The city, once the capital of Mewar, saw Sangha fighting Babur, and later, the exiled scion Pratap dying while fighting Akbar to regain his lost kingdom.
In another grim twist, the artisans of the town abandoned it when their kingdom was lost to the foreigners. The modern-day wandering Lohars in Rajasthan are from here. In 1568, shamed by the defeat, they swore to a life of wandering and self-denial. Sleeping on upturned beds, they wander on the roads to this day.
At 1428 kilometers, NH 8 is not only one of the longest highways but also one the busiest in the subcontinent. However, the part of the highway in Rajasthan is still relatively sparsely filled with vehicles, allowing one to enjoy the scenery around. One such beautiful stretch is the part of NH 8 leading to the city of five lakes, Udaipur. Curving between small hills, the bare earthen surroundings slowly dissolve into a green stretch, indicating presence of water nearby.
Udaipur appears like a shimmering mirage. From far off, the water of its lakes flickers in the afternoon sun. I parked the car on the edge of Lake Pichola and stretched my legs walking along the lake’s periphery. In the center of the lake, perched on a small island, is Lake Palace, built in 1746 as the pleasure palace of Maharana Jagat Singh II.
I was reaching the end of my journey. But this was not the end of NH 8. I recognised that I had not even coursed half of its length and promised to do the full stretch next time I am back in India. I had surely discovered but one thing: the strange time travel experiences a road, yes even a simple single-lane pothole ridden road, can provide to an inquiring yet un-expecting traveler ready to wheel on it.
A version of this story appeared in The HIndu