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History lesson for Sangeet Som: Why Taj Mahal needs our loving care

The Taj Mahal, one of the world’s most iconic monuments, has been in the eye of a political storm. Here’s why it needs constant attention: it has seen a drop in tourists and must be protected from pollution and the ravages of time

india Updated: Oct 16, 2017 14:32 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Taj Mahal,UP Government,Yogi Adityanath
Tourists at the Taj Mahal, a UNESCO world heritage site. One of the most popular tourist draws in the country, India is often identified as the ‘land of the Taj’. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

Under the late afternoon sun of an October day, the Taj Mahal rose dazzling and regal, both the subject of awe for the many visitors gazing at its beauty, and a pristine backdrop to the colourful human saga around it. Time has left its sullying touch on the monument’s white marble façade. The dome especially looks somewhat soiled, as if marked by the muddy palm prints of centuries.

“It is a monument that evokes emotions. I have seen women cry when they see it,” says Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) northern region chairman, Sunil C Gupta. The impact must have been more powerful in the past when, as Gruffudd Owen, a 25-year-old journalist from London pointed out, photographs of the monument were less easily available, and people didn’t know what to expect.

“It is a monument that evokes emotions. I have seen women cry when they see it,” says Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) northern region chairman, Sunil C Gupta

The 17th century monument, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as the resting place of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, has been in the eye of a political storm recently, after it was reported that it had not been included in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government’s list of ‘tourist attractions in the state. Earlier, the Taj – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – was excluded from the list of heritage sites that were to benefit from the UP state budget. The state government later clarified that the list of tourist draws referred only to the new projects being promoted by the government and also released a statement saying that the monument and its surrounding areas was also part of a tourism project proposal prepared in consultation with the World Bank. After the recent controversy, chief minister Yogi Adityanath has made a statement to say that the Taj is a part of our heritage and the state is serious about its preservation.

But on Monday, BJP MLA Sangeet Som added to the controversy, saying that the Taj Mahal did not deserve a place in history because its creator wanted to “ wipe out Hindus”. The BJP distanced itself from the comments.

Protecting the Taj

The Taj is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which, along with the Agra Development Authority, jointly levies an entrance fee to the monument. But it is the ASI that carries out the conservation work. HT made repeated attempts to get a response from the ASI, but officials did not respond. “The money that the Taj earns goes to the consolidated fund of the government and only a fraction of it is allocated for the upkeep of the building,” says conservationist and one of the founder members of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), AGK Menon. “The welfare of the Taj requires a broader civic and multi-layered administrative engagement and merely allocating the ASI some funds for its maintenance cannot suffice as discharge of governance responsibilities.”

Heritage management specialist and representative in India of the World Monuments Fund, Amita Baig, agrees. “The monument does not exist in isolation of the city and there needs to be a political commitment to invest in Agra in a comprehensive and holistic manner,” she says. “The city is poorly developed and there is little thought given to improved public spaces, roads or even adequate sewage and sanitation much of which will make the city more habitable for its citizens and also an improved environment for the Taj.”

Much can be done to improve the Taj complex itself, she says, giving the example of “the restoration of the central concourse. Highly polluted water, either ground water or from the river bed, feeds the water channels. To me this is perhaps the most critical aspect as water contamination does impact the sandstone and can be easily addressed,” says Baig. She adds, “Much more cutting edge research is needed to understand the changes being wrought in the monument by climate change, increased tourism and not least the impact of the drying riverbed, water contamination etc. Equally micro studies undertaken by scholars or universities could easily provide a more informed basis on which to plan the conservation.”

Rs 2388.83 lakh was the revenue from entry tickets and other paid services at the Taj in 2015-16, whereas it was Rs 830.74 lakh in 2016-17 (up to June 2016)
Rs 366.60 lakh was the amount spent on the conservation, preservation, maintenance and environmental development of the Taj in 2015-16. The amount was Rs 24.71 lakh in 2016-17 ( till June 2016)
6.07 MILLION the footfall at the Taj in 2014 which dropped to 4.63 million in 2015
Source: Ministry of Tourism

Problems Of Pollution

One of the primary challenges facing the Taj, and one often talked and written about is pollution and its effects on the marble monument. While the 500-metre green belt ordered by the Supreme Court in 1996 has proven to be effective as a filter around the monument, says Baig, “and other measures such as the diversion of highways, reduction of traffic in the immediate vicinity have also helped,” other sources of pollution from the city still exists, she says. “There are both local and distant sources of pollution. The local sources include automobile fumes and dust, while the distant source is the Mathura oil refinery,” says Menon. The authorities have also introduced shoe covers for visitors to control pollution by dust and only battery-operated vehicles are allowed in the immediate vicinity of the monument.

The monument’s façade is cleaned with a fullers earth pack that removes surface grime and pollutants, but though it seems to be yielding results – the parts of the monument that have been recently cleaned appear much whiter than the dome which is yet to receive the treatment – the process is time-consuming, and while underway, takes away from much of the beauty of the monument.

The scaffolding for maintenance work at the entrance to the Taj. Many believe that the scaffolding put up around the monument earlier resulted in the dip in tourists since it obstructed the view of the monument and spoilt photographs. ( Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO )

Executive director of the IATO, Gour Kanjilal, blames the obstructed view of the Taj from the scaffolding (erected for conservation work around the monument) for the recent drop in tourists (see figures on the right). “For many people a visit to the Taj is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the scaffolding not only obstructs the view of the monument, but also spoils the photographs that tourists take at the site as a keepsake,” he says.

Even Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, had their Taj moment photo-bombed last year by the scaffolding around the minarets. It affected business for Sharief, who earns a living by photographing tourists at the Taj – creating a dent of almost 25 per cent, according to his more vocal friend and Agra resident Zulfikar. At the moment, conservation work is on only at the entrance to the Taj, but work on the dome is said to be scheduled for next year.

What Tourists Want

It is not, however, the only reason for tourist dissatisfaction. “We don’t have proper roads. We do not have a tourist-friendly atmosphere,” rues Rajiv Tiwari, convener of the Agra Tourist Welfare Chamber. Sunil C Gupta agrees, “As you move into the Taj Mahal, the first bottleneck is the entrance itself. There are not enough X-ray machines at the gates. Often the queue of visitors is a mile long. Visitors are given water bottles and shoe covers. But there are not enough wastebins for the discarded items. The toilets in and around the Taj are often not maintained.”

The immediate vicinity of the Taj has been beautified, with cobbled streets, filigreed stone columns covering the lights and an old world-looking façade to the shops. But just a few steps away is the chaos and congestion of the city.

View of the Taj Mahal, Agra, from the East, circa 1858, taken by John Murray. This is arguably the first photograph to be taken of the Taj Mahal. ( Alkazi Collection of Photography )

Over it all hangs the shrill cacophony of people trying to make a living off the tourists – shops, guides, photographers soliciting business, touts promising the best deals, autorickshaws looking for passengers. “It’s a minor complaint, but all these people coming up to you... It can be intense,” admits Owen. The locals have a name for it – lapka or to pounce on someone.

Then there is the Yamuna – once upon a time Shah Jahan’s barge would sail down the river, carrying the emperor to the tomb of his beloved queen. Today it is little more than a shrunken canal. “If the authorities could just do something to increase the flow of water in the river and introduce boat rides, it would boost tourism,” says Govind Gupta, who runs a restaurant near the monument.

Beauty must have its admirers. But as daylight fades and the security begins the process of herding visitors out of the Taj, and closing the gates for the night, one can almost hear the monument stretching its aching muscles and sighing in relief – like an artist’s muse, who after holding a pose all day, is finally free to let go.

First Published: Oct 14, 2017 21:06 IST