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India's Great Heritage Taj Mahal in Danger
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Frontal view of Taj Mahal

Sadly, India continues to let its heritage and history decay. There are umpteen examples.

Recently, when a scholar from the country's prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi asked India's National Archives, also in the same city, for a document, the request was not entertained. The scholar was told that the document was "too brittle."

Over a third of the Archives' treasures are in various stages of degeneration: it may not be long before invaluable records, some from the Mughal period — including those pertaining to the East India Company, which traded in and then ruled India before the British Crown took over the administration in the mid-1800s — are lost forever.

The more visible part of India's past is treated as shabbily and with as much contempt. Take for example, the fascinating ruins of Hampi (located in the modern southern Indian State of Karnataka), the capital city of the renowned Vijayanagar Empire in the 1400s and 1500s.

The ruins of Hampi in the southern Indian State of Karnataka

Declared a World Heritage Site by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the ruins were misused by the local administration, which built two bridges across the historic area. UNESCO threatened to delist Hampi.

What has been a sheer sacrilege is the manner in which India's best known icon, Taj Mahal, has been treated. It is situated close to New Delhi in the city of Agra.

The Taj's renown caught on very early. Some of the first European visitors grew ecstatic when they saw this marble dream. French traveler Francois Bernier, who visited Agra during Aurangazeb's reign in 1670, said that "this piece of work is far more important than the pyramids of Egypt."

In 1789, painter Thomas Daniell called the Taj "a spectacle of the highest celebrity." Lord Curzon loved it, spent time and money to repair and beautify the Taj's surroundings, and declared that "if I had never done anything else in India, I have written my name here, and the letters are a living joy." Rabindranath Tagore wanted only this "one teardrop (Taj)" to "glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever."

Mughal King Shah JahanQueen Mumtaz

But, the monument of love that Mughal king Shah Jahan built for his beloved queen, Mumtaz, has stood for more than three-and-a-half centuries not just amidst glory but also contention and controversy.

In the late 1900s, this white tomb was ravaged by pollution: a railway marshalling yard with steam engines, an oil refinery, two thermal plants and 2300-odd foundries and glass factories and thousands of vehicles spewed fumes which contaminated the Taj that, some aver, beyond remedy.

However, most of these pollutants have been removed, largely at the insistence and perseverance of a Supreme Court lawyer, M.C. Mehta, who fought a relentless battle to save this symbol.

Yet, the itch to spoil this magnificence in marble remains. The areas around the Taj are still an eyesore. Schemes for their beautification have remained on paper.

What takes the cake was a plan made in 2003 — and even executed to an extent — by the local government to establish an amusement complex right next to the Taj Mahal. It was only when UNESCO threatened to remove the Taj from the list of World Heritage Sites that New Delhi stepped in to save this splendid structure from peril.

Taj Mahal "Crowm Palace"
Taj Mahal is a beautiful mausoleum at Agra built by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife Queen Mumtaz. Completed in 1649 Taj Mahal literally means "Crown Palace" or "Crown of the Palace."

And, now there is another dispute over the date of Taj's completion. Some historians put it as 1654. But others say that it was 1643 or early 1644. Abdul Hamid Lahori — who wrote the "Padshahnama" and who was Shah Jahan's official chronicler — wrote that the Taj was completed 12 years after the first brick was laid, sometime in early 1632, roughly six months after Mumtaz died on June 17 1631 in Burhanpur. To add to the perplexity, an inscription at the main gate of the Taj says that the edifice was completed in 1648.

However, the local government has begun celebrating 350 years of the Taj, and modern experts are not amused. One of them, a famous historian and archaeologist, said: "I do not know what system of counting they subscribe to. Set aside the written records of the Mughal period, if the Archaeological Survey of India (which takes care of the Taj) had consulted its own publications, it would have realized that the Taj is older than 350 years."

Ultimately, one would suppose, the date is not important. What is, is the care that the Taj must get. Sadly, it has been suffering.

Shah Jahan must also be, and even more so. He hired the best architects of the day, and planned this tomb for his most favourite wife in such a meticulously way that it would last for posterity. Conservationists agree that despite two million annual visitors, the Taj has remained structurally intact. Even its underground chambers are amazingly dry.

Such is the strength of the edifice. This is what probably saved the Taj for us to see today: the cash-strapped British Viceroy, Lord William Bentinck, auctioned away the tomb for its marble. But the businessman who bought it found it impossible to break down the mausoleum and cart away the stones!

The Taj remains till this day, despite the administrations blinkered policies. After the polluting factories were moved out of Agra, the city is dying an economic death. Experts aver that the establishments ought to have been encouraged to use safer fuels. And, with the Taj closing down at sunset, hotels are doing poor business, for most tourists prefer to make day-trips.

As one observer put it, must we make a tomb of the city to preserve a mausoleum?

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Taj Mahal Photo Gallery

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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.






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