For nearly four centuries, the Taj Mahal has stood as a majestic embodiment of human love and one of the finest specimens of Indo-Islamic architecture in India. The French traveler Francois Bernier, who lived in India from 1658 to 1668 during Aurangzeb’s reign, was so impressed with the Mughal masterpiece that he noted in his memoir, “I decidedly think that this monument deserves much more to be numbered among the wonders of the world than the pyramids of Egypt, those unshapen masses which when I had seen them twice yielded me no satisfaction.” Undoubtedly, the Mughal architecture evolving through Humayun’s tomb in Delhi and Itimad-ud-Daulah’s mausoleum in Agra reached its pinnacle in the form of the Taj Mahal.
A world heritage site, the Taj is visited by an estimated 3.5 million people every year and is by far the most popular tourist destination in India. It generates a huge amount of foreign exchange for the country. The Indian Archaeology Department and the Government of Uttar Pradesh, concerned with its deteriorating condition, have invested both money and technological resources to preserve this national treasure and safeguard its sublime beauty. But the task has not been easy. And the efforts have only been partially successful.
The Taj is menaced by a new problem – millions of insects excreting a green substance on its marble walls
In common with many world archeological sites, the Taj has been threatened by excessive human traffic, industrial air pollution and the natural aging process. Persistent exposure to smoke and pollution has rendered the brilliant and pearly appearance of the white marble pale and dull looking. Furthermore, its structural integrity and stability have been under stress by the movement of millions of tourists who traverse the delicate pavilions and elegant terraces every year. This problem is not unique. Some countries have adopted special measures to protect their national monuments, while striving to keep them accessible to tourists. Visitors to the Moorish palace Alhambra in Granada, Spain, are allowed to remain inside for only a specified period of time. This requirement reduces congestion and trauma to the delicate structures of the Alhambra.
To protect the Taj from the ravages of smoke and industrial emissions, India’s Supreme Court nearly two decades ago ordered the closure of all industrial units and foundries in its vicinity. However, emissions by motorcycles, rickshaws and cars have remained largely unabated. Some time ago, Indian scientists came up with an ingenious and simple solution to this vexing problem. They discovered that application of a thin layer of Fuller’s earth – mudpacks long credited in Unani and Ayurvedic medicine with therapeutic properties for skin complaints – to the exterior of the Taj would absorb many of the pollutants, restoring the marble to its original sheen. The beauty of the treatment was that the thin mud plaster could be readily washed off, leaving little or no residue behind.
Recently, the Taj has been menaced by problem of a different kind. Writing in the New York Times from New Delhi, two Indian authors, Nida Najar and Suhasini Raj, reported that millions of mosquito-like creatures had invaded the historic site. They described how “the bugs have swarmed the Taj Mahal on a mating flight, excreting a green substance on parts of its marble walls.” The writers attributed the huge proliferation of insects to the uncontrolled growth of nitrogen-rich algae along the highly polluted Yamuna River. The river, at one time, used to wash the back wall of the mausoleum but has since moved away. The green excretions are not considered harmful in of themselves, but their ubiquitous nature and profusion, with the insects feeding on an inexhaustible supply of algae, could become a huge problem in the future. No simple solution – apart from the old-fashioned way of washing the excrements, a labour-intensive operation – has been found to be effective.
The Taj Mahal remains one of the most beloved tourist sites in the world. According to contemporary chronicles, construction of the mausoleum was for many years the Emperor Shah Jahan’s singular passion. He commissioned the best architectural talent available in India and beyond. Although the actual builders have never been definitively identified, Professor Annemarie Schimmel in her book, The Empire of the Great Moghuls, identified Ustad Ahmad Lahori, also known Nadir al-asr, as the chief architect.
It is unlikely that any European engineers played a major role in its construction, as has been implied by some historians. Indian architects, masons, and calligraphers long had had a reputation for excellence worldwide, and were a prized booty for foreign conquerors. Timur (Tamerlane), who occupied Delhi in 1398, forcibly took back with him hundreds of architects and masons to beautify his capital of Samarkand. Some three-and-half centuries later, Nader Shah followed the same example and carried to Iran many Indian artisans, craftsmen and calligraphers.
The Taj Mahal has withstood many adversities during its lifetime. Soon after its completion, parts of the building started to show signs of structural damage. Authors Diana and Michael Preston in their book, Taj Mahal, relate the story of Aurangzeb returning from one of his campaigns, stopped by the tomb to pay respect to and seek blessings from his mother. Noticing the damage to the building, he wrote to his father, “The buildings of these sacred precincts are as stable as they were when completed. However, the dome over the blessed tomb leaks on the north side during the rainy season.” Furthermore, he stressed that “the garden across the Taj, known as Mehtab Bagh, had been completely inundated and therefore had lost its charm.”
With the decline of the Mughal power and during its twilight years in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Taj went through a period of desolation. Taking advantage of the lawlessness and virtual anarchy, unruly gangs of Jats roaming in Agra and the vicinity carted away its bedecked silver gates, and its marble and red stone slabs. Later when the Marathas gained power and captured the city, they and their French allies chiseled away precious and semiprecious stones imbedded in the walls and floral inlays.
In 1803, General Gerard Lake, Commander-in-Chief of East India Company forces, captured Agra after defeating the Marathas in the second Anglo-Maratha war. The new rulers quickly recognised that the Taj had been robbed of its precious accoutrements, including prized carpets, wall hangings and ornate canopies. Yet, they did nothing to restore it to its former glory and used the sumptuous monument as a place for entertainment, renting out the mosque and the guest house to honeymooning couples, while its gardens were used for weekend dancing parties and merrymaking.
A dramatic shift in the fortune of the Taj and other archeological sites in India came about with the appointment of Lord Curzon as the Viceroy in 1898. He was an enthusiastic proponent of protecting the archeological sites and an ardent admirer of the Taj Mahal. He enumerated in his archival papers, as cited by Diana and Michael Preston in their book, many of the improvements he had orders to be performed at the Taj Mahal. “Every building in the garden enclosure of Taj has been scrupulously repaired and the discovery of old plans has enabled us to restore the water channels and flower beds more exactly to their original state,” he proudly declared.
While on a trip to Egypt, Lord Curzon had noticed an ancient brass lamp hanging in a mosque in Cairo, which he very much admired. He ordered a replica to be made, and the craftsmen of Agra produced an exquisite copy of it. Curzon donated it to the Taj Mahal, where it hangs to this day from the ceiling above the cenotaph. Lord Curzon was a committed imperialist. Yet, he is credited with saving the Taj Mahal and many other magnificent archeological sites in India for the coming generations, indeed for the entire world, to enjoy and cherish.