While transportation is as old as human civilization, the roads were never always the same. The first improved trails would have been at fords, mountain passes, and through swamps. The first improvements would have consisted largely of clearing trees and big stones from the path. As commerce increased, the tracks were often flattened or widened to accommodate human and animal traffic. Some of these dirt tracks were developed into fairly extensive networks, allowing communications, trade, and governance over wide areas. Since the region that is now the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir with its parts occupied by Pakistan and China, has a strategic location, a study of road network assumes huge importance in understanding history, culture, and economy.[RVListenButton]
Long before the construction of the Jhelum Valley Cart Road in 1890, the valley was accessible through the paths overpasses that penetrated its encompassing barriers of snow-capped mountains. The northern and eastern paths led overpasses towards upper regions of British India, Ladakh and Yarkand; whereas the south-east path towards Chamba in Himachal Pradesh, and the British District of Lahoul; south towards Jammu which was then the winter capital of the State; south-west across the Pir Panjal range and along with the fragments of the once majestic road to Bhimber and Lahore; in the west by the banks of the Jhelum to the British district of Hazira or the hill station of Murree. The only mode of transportation among these paths was the carriage consisting of mules, ponies, bullocks, and coolies.
It is a notable geographical fact that Kashmir is a landlocked area enclosed by high mountains. While the entry and exit from Kashmir has been problematic due to this natural fence, it has historically been a protective barrier also. However, there has always been an easy inlet and outlet to the external world. The route along the River Jhelum downstream from Kashmir has been the only normal access to Kashmir for centuries.
Talking about the paths, the primary route being followed by the Mughal Emperors, and being signified as the Imperial route has been across the Pir Panjal range. In order to testify the passages of former Royalties, there were certain vestiges or even the fairly preserved remains of the ‘Sarai’. After Mughals, the route was usually followed by the Europeans entering in the valley in 1860’s and 1870’s. this route has also been followed by the Kashmiris, earlier to go to “Hindustan”. There was another short route in Pir Panjal range, entering into the valley through Loran (Poonch) and Tosa Maidan.
The Banihal route gained its importance with the acquisition of the valley by Maharaja Gulab Singh in 1846. It was a direct route connecting Srinagar to Jammu. This road was considered as the private route for Maharaja and was controlled by himself 0nly while the Jhelum Cart road was being built due to the pressure of British Government, the traditional route of Banihal fell into disuse and neglect. It affected the trade between two prime regions of the state, Jammu and Kashmir. After the powers being partly restored to the Maharaja in 1912, one of his sagacious ministers worked out a plan to construct a cart road over Banihal. It remained a private road for the Maharaja and a special permit was required to travel over it. The Jhelum Valley Cart Road commenced in 1880 and took ten years to get completed. Both the Banihal and Jhelum Valley Cart roads were great feasts of engineering skill and together they made 400 miles of hill road which was the longest in the world.
Since time immemorial, Kashmir was linked with Lhasa and Yarkand through a route leading over Zoji-la. This route was mainly traversed by Buddhist missionaries from Kashmir, to distant China and over this route, the caravans laden with silk, wool, silver and tea travelled to Kashmir and with cotton fabrics, shawls, sugar etc from Kashmir to China.On the North-eastern side, existing are the routes through Gurez to Gilgit, across Zoji La to Drass and beyond. The British built a road in Gurez-Gilgit route in order to supply their garrison in Gilgit. The Zoji La route was the famous caravan route for trade with Central Asia and China including Yarkand, Kashgar, and Sinkiang.
The Hajis from Yarkand used to go to the Makkah via Kashmir. There was Sarai of Yarkandis in Safakadal known as Kak Sarai where one could witness many Bactrian camels (Double Humped) which used to come from Yarkand and other places. In the Chinese Revolution in 1949, a large number of refugees came from Sinkiang and Yarkand to Kashmir. They ultimately migrated to Turkey and other places. This route was a small branch of the famous Silk Route.
The freedom of the sub-continent from the British in 1947 unlocked all the areas to the outside world but due to their misfortune, Kashmiris got both politically as well as physically locked up by this significant event. It is not necessary to repeat the events which are in dozens of books but the reality needs to be stated that Kashmir’s free access to the outside world got totally blocked by the events of 1947. It was left with only one opening through the Banihal Cart Road.
Although this road has been elevated and broadened but an important section of the road is a virtual headache which cuts off Kashmir for days, especially in winter. Off late, the opening of Mughal road and Sinthan Top road, connecting Kashmir Valley with the outside world via the Jammu region are the two recent achievements on this front.