Why is the Taj Mahal crumbling? | Sunday Observer

Why is the Taj Mahal crumbling?

2 December, 2018

Shamshuddin Khan has been showing visitors around the Taj Mahal for more than 30 years. During that time he has been a tour guide to more than 50 world leaders - recent guests have included the Sri Lankan president and the Israeli prime minister.

Over the past three decades, he says, his hair has turned greyer, but the Taj Mahal has become darker. Approaching the building, Khan points out the cracks and the decaying marble of the structure.

“There are embarrassing moments when the foreign tourists ask me why the Taj Mahal is not being maintained the way it should have been. They also ask us why it is losing its colour and shine. We guides have no answers.”

The Taj Mahal was built in the city of Agra in the 17th Century by the Emperor Shah Jahan. It was a mausoleum for his favourite queen, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. The emperor used marble from Rajasthan which was said to have a unique feature - it looks pink in the morning, white in the afternoon, and milky in the evening.

Rabindranath Tagore, one of India’s most celebrated poets, described the Taj Mahal as “a tear of marble… on the cheek of time”. In 1992, Princess Diana was famously photographed, alone in front of the building, a few months before the announcement of her separation from Prince Charles.

The Indian tourism and culture ministry says that between four to six million tourists visited the Taj Mahal in the five years to 2015. Peak tourist season begins in the month of October and continues until March.

But the Taj Mahal has indeed begun to lose its shine. Its foundations are weakening and cracks are becoming larger, and deeper in the marble dome and the monument. The upper parts of the minarets are said to be on the verge of collapse. In high winds earlier this year, two pillars on an outer building fell to the ground.

In July, the veteran environmentalist and lawyer MC Mehta brought a petition to India’s Supreme Court, calling for fresh efforts to save the Taj Mahal.

Judges agreed, and ordered regular hearings involving all those responsible for the building’s conservation - the state and federal governments, and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). It criticised the “lethargy” of state and federal officials towards the fate of India’s most famous building:

“Taj Mahal should be protected. However, if such an indifference of officials continues then it should be closed down. Even then if things do not shape correctly, then the authorities should demolish it.”

While few are willing to countenance the demolition of the Taj Mahal, the mere mention of the idea by the Supreme Court indicates that there is now a real question mark over its future. The petition which MC Mehta delivered to the Supreme Court this year was not his first. A lawyer by profession, he has been attempting to make the Indian authorities take action to preserve the Taj Mahal since the mid-1980s. At that time, airborne pollution had already been a problem in the area for many years.

Environmentalists were particularly concerned about a major oil refinery in Mathura, 50km away, which started operating in the 1970s.

In 1978, an expert committee conducting studies on air quality in and around Agra found substantial levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter in the atmosphere. According to Supreme Court documents, “the four-hourly average values of SO2 at Taj Mahal were observed to be higher than 300 ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre)”.

Leaving aside the ruinous effect on public health, the effect of this pollution on the Taj Mahal was becoming increasingly clear. Sulphur dioxide, along with other pollutants, were combining with moisture in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. A report by Unesco for the Indian government found that the monument was turning yellow because of “suspended particulate matter and dust impinging on the surface”. In 1984, Mehta brought a petition to the Supreme Court, arguing that foundries, chemical industries and refineries were the main cause behind the discoloration of the Taj Mahal.

Nine years later the Supreme Court announced that it agreed with him, and drew up a list of measures to reduce pollution in the area. Orders were passed to close all polluting industries in around Agra and especially those very near the Taj Mahal.

Companies operating in and around Agra were ordered to use only natural gas as a fuel. The use of coal was made illegal in the area.

A ban was imposed on diesel vehicles and machinery in the city, and orders were passed to remove all tanneries from the area. It was made illegal to take buffalo to the Yamuna, the river on whose banks the Taj Mahal stands, and illegal to wash laundry there.

In 1998 the Supreme Court established a special exclusion area to keep heavy industry at a distance from the monument. The Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) covers an area of more than 10,400 sq km.

Mehta says that much could have been changed if the authorities had followed the Supreme Court’s order. “Unfortunately nothing changed and I had to knock at the door of the Supreme court again,” he says.

Use of diesel-operated vehicles continued unabated. Local industry owners protested against the restrictions and even formed an organisation with a slogan – “remove Taj, save industry”.

Smoke, dust and toxic effluents from industries in and around Agra continue to be dumped into the river Yamuna, and pollution has continued rising at an alarming rate. While tanneries were relocated, other activities - such as the use of diesel vehicles and generators - continued unabated. Moreover, cattle continued to bathe in the Yamuna, and clothes continued to be laundered there.

The threat to the Taj Mahal does not just come from the air - it is also waterborne. Here, too, the situation seems to be worsening. The stretch of the Yamuna river which passes through Agra is one of the most polluted waterways in the world.

- Salman Ravi -bbc.com