Why the iconic Taj Mahal is a victim of prejudice
It could either be rank ignorance or plain prejudice and I have a hunch I know which it is. The UP government’s attitude to the Taj Mahal is more than negligence. It suggests deliberate disregard. And the chief minister’s belated reassurance – from Kerala of all places – does little to dispel my doubts.
The Taj is unquestionably India’s biggest tourist attraction. It’s renowned as one of the seven Wonders of the World. Tagore called it “a tear drop on the cheek of time”. Unesco considers it a World Heritage Site. Many travel to India just to see it. And a picture by the Taj is what everyone wants.
Yet, when the Yogi Adityanath government presented its first budget it didn’t allocate any cultural heritage funds for the Taj. In June the chief minister said: “The Ramayana and The Geeta represent Indian culture not the Taj Mahal”. He also claimed gifting replicas of the Taj to foreign visitors is “not a part of Indian culture”. Finally, a recently released 32-page glossy brochure, called ‘Uttar Pradesh Paryatan-Apaar Sambhavanaayein’ translated as ‘Uttar Pradesh Tourism – Unlimited Possibilities’, which is intended to promote tourism, ignores the Taj Mahal altogether. Leave aside a photograph, there’s isn’t even a reference to this iconic monument. Yet a whole page has been devoted to the Gorakhnath Temple, of which the Yogi is the head priest.
If this attitude is inexplicable, what makes it worse is the background against which it’s happening. Instead of increasing, the number of tourists visiting the Taj have been steadily falling since 2012. Figures quoted by the Washington Post and given by the ministry of tourism show that by 2015 there was a 35% drop of foreign tourists. Even if you add domestic tourism, the figure for total tourists dropped by 113,400 from 2012 to 2015. Worse, the tourism ministry doesn’t have a clear explanation. It blames the economy, lack of infrastructure and general security concerns.
On the other hand, promotion of the Taj is one certain way of reversing this trend. Research shows that international tourists are most easily attracted by things they want to see. Just as the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace draw visitors to Britain or the Eiffel Tower and Versailles to France or the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building to America, the Taj is the magnet that brings them to India.
Alas, the Yogi Adityanath government either doesn’t accept this or, possibly, doesn’t like it. As Rajiv Saxena, the secretary of the Tourism Guild of Agra, says: “The current state government is not supporting Agra as a tourist destination because of its Mughal monuments. Money for tourism development has not been announced. Their focus is on religious tourism.”
This brings me to the concern I started with. Are the Yogi and his government ignoring the Taj because it was built by the Mughal Empire? Is it viewed as a symbol of Muslim conquest? Is their treatment of the Taj revenge for 1,200 years of invasion, conquest and rule?
When questioned the Yogi glibly states “the Taj is an integral part of our heritage”. Of course it is and even he can’t deny that. Yet when asked about the allocation of funds all he will say is money for its “conservation has been allocated.” So the Yogi won’t let the Taj fall into rack and ruin. But what about promoting it? What about using its magic to attract visitors? What about boasting the Taj is Indian and we’re proud of it?
The views expressed are personal