The Taj Mahal - A Victim of Apathy and Overtourism


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Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Agra
January 1st 2020
Published: January 1st 2020
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The Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in honour of the Persian princess Mumtaz Mahal, his beloved third wife, who died in 1632 while bearing their 14th child. He poured his energy into creating for her the most beautiful tomb ever built. The complex also houses the tomb of Shah Jahan himself, and the Taj’s stunning architecture has made it one of the most iconic monuments in the world.

It took around 20,000 artisans and 1000 elephants twenty years to build. The white marble stone is inlaid with floral details carved from precious gems. In places, the stone is carved into delicate screens called pierce work so that visitors can see into the next chamber. All of the floors are inlaid with patterned stone, and incised painting in abstract designs adorns the walls. The artisans who did this incredible work were supervised by an entire committee of architects. The cost of the complex, in modern values, is over a billion Australian dollars.

From April 2018, visitors will have seen a flurry of restoration work at the monument, and scaffolding in their photos, while the Taj receives another mud pack, as air pollution is turning its
The Taj Mahal TowerThe Taj Mahal TowerThe Taj Mahal Tower

The four towers all lean slightly outwards, the idea being if they fall, they won’t land on the Taj itself
ivory white surface yellow. The mud pack treatment consists of applying Fuller’s Earth, a clay traditionally used to clean marble, to the entire structure. The clay forms a thick paste that absorbs dirt, grease and animal droppings, and is washed off with distilled water, leaving the surface pristine. The process is time consuming so is done in sections.

‘Restore the Taj Mahal or we will shut it down,’ the Supreme Court told the central and state governments in July 2018. This announcement sent shivers of apprehension across the country and the world, because the talk of closure is not new.

The Taj Mahal, it seems, needs more restoration work than most visitors to the monument are aware of. For years it has been plagued with poor maintenance and a host of structural issues. Restoration work by the Archelogical Survey of India (ASI) is ongoing, as the monument's marble surface has developed numerous cracks and water has been seeping in over time, particularly during the monsoon seasons. This has led to algae growth, while the back of the monument, which faces the highly polluted Yumana River, is especially dirty due to the combined effect of bacteria infestation from insect excrement on the marble surface, and water seepage inside the cracks.

The tourist experience at the Taj Mahal is sometimes not what’s expected as there are repeated reports of unnerving near accidents - in August 2015, a massive copper and bronze chandelier fell off its hook, narrowly missing tourists milling around the Great Gate (Darwaza-e-Rauza). In March 2016, the heavy metal pinnacle of one of the four minarets crashed. Twice in 2018, large chunks of red sandstone fell off rusted clamps, followed by a stone minaret.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have repaired one of the minarets after receiving reports of numerous cracks. Experts say the iron nails that keep the marble stones attached to the brick and mortar of monument's surface have also rusted and reached the end of their lifespan, thus the stones are coming loose. The buildings foundations, which are gigantic wooden slabs built over deep wells, are designed to be constantly exposed to moisture from the Yamuna River. They are at serious risk of shrinking and cracking as Agra’s growing population depletes underground water levels.

Unfortunately it seems the Taj Mahal is fast developing symptoms that may soon become incurable and the real concern is bureaucratic apathy. Over the years, the lack of environmental regulations, combined with bureaucratic oversight, has worsened the state of the monument. Huge quantities of trash such as newspapers and plastic bottles are burnt in Agra, contributing to the toxic smog that affects the Taj’s marble and causes small holes in the structure’s surface.

Eight million visitors a year also leave their mark. They descend every day on Shah Jahan’s celebrated mausoleum, leaving their mark with fingerprints, oil stains, grime and dust. The ASI has taken steps to prevent further damage to the irreplaceable marble carvings and inlay on the monument walls by erecting barricades to prevent tourists from reaching out and touching them. However, the floors of the monument are also not faring well.

The ASI has, in November 2019, taken out a tender for the replacement of 400 stones on the surface of the 'Chameli Farsh', the vast external floor surrounding the main dome, worn down by countless footfalls. The restoration, when it gets underway as there was no work being done when we were there in late December, is expected to stretch through the tourist season.

Indians make up the majority of
Classic view of the Taj Mahal.Classic view of the Taj Mahal.Classic view of the Taj Mahal.

The fountains are on only 2 hours a day
the Taj Mahal’s 10,000-15,000 average daily visitors, with numbers rising to 70,000 on the weekends. So, in 2018 the admission price increased 400% for the Indian people, from 50 rupees ($1) to 250 rupees ($5) in an effort to lower tourist numbers. Foreigners pay 1280 rupees ($28), an absolute pittance to visit one of the world’s architectural wonders. Indian nationals are now limited to 40,000 a day, still a huge volume of people.

At the moment there is a 3 hour maximum visit here, and those overstaying their time limit will be fined. Visitors now have to adhere to times specified on pre-purchased tickets. Anyone who turns up without the time stamped on their tickets will not be allowed entrance and will have to purchase another ticket on-site.

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