Taj Mahal, white-marbled mausoleum, is changing its colour with spots of yellow, brown and green becoming visible on white marble surface. The pristine white colour of this Moghul monument due to which it has been attracting tourists from all over the world may soon lose its distinction of white monument of love due to ageing, pollution, neglect and ignorance of authorities
After receiving a strong rap from the Supreme Court for the poor upkeep and maintenance of this world heritage site, the government started taking some measures to improve the situation at Taj Mahal. The Government of Uttar Pradesh along with the School of Planning and Architecture has recently prepared a First Draft Report in the form of a Vision Document relating to the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) which has been submitted to the Supreme Court. One of the important features of the TTZ is the Taj Mahal itself and interestingly, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which is responsible for the maintenance and preservation of the Taj Mahal, has not even been consulted in the preparation of the Vision Document. Hopefully, this vision document contains some solutions to ensure the longevity of the structure in its original form.
Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) is a defined area of 10,400-sq.km around the Taj Mahal to protect the monument from pollution. The TTZ Authority looks after an area of about 10,400-sq.km spread over the districts of Agra, Firozabad, Mathura, Hathras and Etah in Uttar Pradesh and Bharatpur district of Rajasthan. The Supreme Court in 1996 banned the use of coal/coke in industries located in the TTZ with a mandate for switching over from coal/coke to natural gas, and relocating them outside the TTZ or shutting down. The TTZ comprises over 40 protected monuments including three World Heritage Sites Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. TTZ is so named since it is located around the Taj Mahal and is shaped like a trapezoid.
Taj Mahal is located on the bank of Yamuna river which was recently proclaimed “ecologically dead,” insofar as it cannot support fish or plant life. It is observed that the river pollution attracted a species of insect that excrete on the monument thus contributing to the degradation of the Taj Mahal’s surface. This problem was identified two years ago but the government preferred to ignore the issue, perhaps not knowing the gravity of the situation and consequences of its inaction.
But one thing is sure – no one has been able to find out the exact reason for the discolouration of Taj Mahal. Different institutions and experts have pointed out different reasons and also the reasons have changed with the passage of time. For example, Mathura Refinery which is located very close to the monument releases many air pollutants like sulphur dioxide which reacts with water to form sulphuric acid. Experts have complained that this acid erodes stone surface thus causing damage over a period of time. But now there are other problems which are more serious than this which need to be addressed to if we want our next generation to see this monument in its original form.
Advocate M.C. Mehtais one of the several prominent persons at the forefront of fight to save Taj Mahal from environmental degradation. Mehta had started his campaign in early 1980s, initially concentrating on Indian Oil Corporation’s Mathura Refinery. He also wanted all polluting units including iron foundries and other small industries in Agra, should be shut down or moved out of Agra or should be forced to use cleaner technology. At last in 1996, he got the justice when the SC ordered the closure or shifting of foundries around Agra.
However, few years later the city of Agra faced another problem, that of growing population along with which vehicular population too increased. Now it is estimated that there are about eight lakh vehicles in the Agra region which add to air pollution thus, posing threat to Taj Mahal. Government data shows that particulate matter in the air – dust, vehicle exhaust and other suspended particles – is well above prescribed standards. Though now vehicular movement is restricted within 500-m of the monument, threat from the vehicular pollution is not fully nullified.
Some of the experts also point finger towards Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for its poor maintenance and preservation work. It is said that ASI has in some places used modern building materials like cement in conservation work. ASI uses fuller’s earth, a type of sedimentary clay, to clean the surface of the monument. A layer of paste made out of Fuller’s earth is applied on the surface, which takes out the dust and dirt from the pores of the marbleand after removing the impurities falls down. However, some experts say that this kind of ‘spa treatment’ only bleaches the surface and in the long run does more harm than any good to the surface.
R Nath, a historian who has done lot of study on Taj Mahal, goes to the very foundation of the monument and brings out a scary picture of the structure and its structural stability. According to Nath, depleting Yamuna river water is a matter of grave concern for Taj Mahal which is going unnoticed. He is of the opinion that sufficient water level in the river is necessary to maintain the monument’s massive foundation. Nath feels that falling ground water level is a matter of concern as paucity of water may cause disintegration of wood used in the foundation due to lack of moisture. Water level in Yamuna near the monument has gone down over the years partly due to upstream barriers built to augment public water supplies. Flowing Yamuna water would have provided stabilizing counterforce to Taj and dry river may cause the structure to slide or sink over a period of time. However, ASI doesn’t buy this argument and says that it has got the foundation checked by the competent people who have found it to be strong and doesn’t warrant any action. One only hopes that ASI is proved right in this case.
Above all, one should not forget that the monument is nearly four centuries old and its exterior marble is exposed to hot sun, cold winter and Monsoon rains. “Most of the marbles used in interiors of the structure lose their colour over a period of time and Taj Mahal changing its colour should not surprise us,” says an ASI official.
The Taj Mahal receives 7 to 8 million visitors annually and now there is a proposal to limit domestic tourists to 40,000 per day in an effort to protect the nearly 400-year-old tomb. By doing so whether the monument can be saved from discolouration? Punctured tyre cannot be repaired unless you are able to locate puncture spot exactly.
Taj Mahal is the pride of Agra and also of India but for some it has become a curse which has snatched away their livelihood. Closure of industries in nearby areas has rendered many jobless and many had to opt for less paying jobs. Again, ban on vehicles in the nearby areas has promoted cycle rickshaws which many consider inhuman activity. At the same time, more and more visitors means, thriving tourism business for the locals.
Indeed, problem is visible to plain eyes but the reason is not. Whether it is Mathura Refinery or air pollution or acid rain or insects on the dirty banks of Yamuna river or just the age – experts are still not able to say the main reason for this symbol of love changing its colour. Fingers have been pointed at various agencies by the activists, heritage lovers and environmentalists. Government agencies on the other hand, are just looking at each other often shirking their responsibility with oft repeated remark of ‘I warned you so.’ With no solutions in sight despite recording so many reports and suggestions, soon the original white of the Taj Mahal may become a thing of past. In modern times even love fades with passage of time, then what a big deal if the symbol of love does!