Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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© Copyright 2004



Heritage And History


New Wonder Taj Mahal needs to be cared for

The Taj Mahal was always considered a Wonder. India’s best known icon, this white marble monument is now one among the New 7 Wonders of the World along with the Great Wall of China and Rome’s Coliseum among others. Voted by a hundred million people – through internet, telephone and SMS – as a New Wonder, the Taj has made India understandably proud. The results were announced in Lisbon recently by India’s Bollywood star, Bipasha Basu.

India’s national poet, Rabindranath Tagore, once called the Taj Mahal “a teardrop on the cheek of time”. The word Taj Mahal means “Crown Palace”, and the English poet, Sir Edwin Arnold, perhaps described it best, as "Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passions of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones." It is a celebration of woman built in marble and that’s the way to appreciate it.

Taj Mahal, which stands on the bank of River Yamuna at Agra (close to New Delhi) , was built by the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, in 1631 in memory of his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, a Muslim Persian princess. She died after giving birth to their 14th child. The death so crushed the emperor that all his hair and beard were said to have turned snow white within a few months.

When Mumtaz Mahal was alive, she extracted four promises from the emperor: first, that he build the Taj; second, that he should marry again; third, that he be kind to their children; and fourth, that he visit the tomb on her death anniversary. He kept the first two promises.

The construction began in 1631 and was completed in 17 years. Twenty thousand people were deployed. The marble was brought in from all over India and central Asia, and it took 1000 elephants to transport it. It was designed by Iranian architect Ustad Isa and it is best appreciated when the architecture and its adornments are linked to the passion that inspired it. It is a "symbol of eternal love".

But Shah Jahan must be an unhappy man today, wherever he is. His symbol of love is languishing. The river itself has hardly any water, and is often used as an open sewer with Agra dumping into it its domestic and factory waste. At the best part of the year, which is during the monsoon, when there is a semblance of water flow in the river, it stinks. Compare this with a picture of 17th century Agra when Shah Jahan used to sit on the banks looking at the tome coming up, marble by marble.

What is worse, despite the steps taken to relocate the hundreds of factories around the Taj, air pollution has not gone done as much as it ought to have. This is because Agra faces massive electricity shortages, and the thousands of homes, shops and offices have to use diesel generators. Their fumes envelope the monument, robbing it of its sheen.

A leading historian, Sugam Anand, says that the Taj is suffering from “jaundice”. He was referring to the yellow coat on the marble. A renowned campaigner for saving the edifice, K.S. Rana, rued that the pollution would corrode the marble, and cause it to deteriorate faster.

Earlier this year, an Indian Parliamentary Committee ruled that the level of suspended particulate matter over the Taj was alarming.

For years, campaigns have been carried out to preserve this Indian gem, but efforts, though many, have been either half-hearted or not implemented the way they ought to have been.

Regrettably the Government lived in a denial mode for a long time, countering expert views and well-researched media stories with disbelief and incorrect rejoinders. Finally, when the Government woke up, the damage was far too gone.

One really does not know if at all the Taj Mahal can be restored to a glory close enough to what Shah Jahan crowned it with. However, it is imperative that whatever is left of the monument must be conserved. This certainly calls for a world movement, and, more important, pushing Indians into realising that the Taj is too precious to be lost.

(Webposted July 13 2007)