The Taj Mahal has long stood as a symbol of eternal love. Even the most jaded traveller is left in awe at the sheer grandeur of the site. The dizzying heat of Agra and the seemingly endless rush of tourists may deter one’s spirits at first sight. Still, the monument alone makes it all worthwhile. One is, however, left to wonder whether this awe-inspiring monument will retain its wonder for long.
Over the years, a yellowish-brown coat of pollution and dust particles has settled over the surfaces of the Taj Mahal. In 2018, the Supreme Court of India also condemned the government for its apathy and lethargy towards the preservation efforts for the monument.
Located on the southern bank of the river Yamuna, this ivory-white marble structure was famously commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan in honour of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, in 1632. The white marble was brought to Agra from Rajasthan and inlaid with semiprecious stones such as jasper, jade, lapis lazuli, and sapphire from all over Asia. The Taj Mahal complex, along with the gardens and the surrounding walls were completed in 1653.
A Corroding Wonder
Termed as ‘Marble Cancer’, the corrosion of marble due to the reaction between calcium carbonate (marble) and the acids in acid rain has caused the Taj to turn darker. Air pollution caused by vehicular emissions, burning of waste and fossil fuels, and effluents from kerosene and diesel operated household generators add to the contamination.
The polluted banks of the river Yamuna pose further threats. Chemical waste from factories, raw sewage, and untreated domestic garbage creates a breeding ground for fleas and insects, whose faecal matter further stains the white marble of the Taj.
To make matters worse, moisture and highly corrosive gases, such as sulphur dioxide and NOx gases, cause the connectors of the marble slabs to rust. This rusting causes the connectors to expand, thus leading to spalling or shattering of the marble. Over time, this could reduce the load-bearing capacity of the structure, even causing it to collapse.
Efforts at Conservation
In 1999, the Supreme Court of India established a 10,400 sq. km protective area around the Taj. Called the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ), the region saw a ban of coal/coke industries. In 2017, the government banned petrol and diesel vehicles within 500 metres of the Taj.
Until a few years back, the Taj Mahal had a footfall of nearly 70,000 tourists per day. This caused multiple concerns over the damages to the foundations and floors. The number of visitors were objectively brought down to 40,000 per day. Restriction on visitation hours helped implement these plans, besides hiking of admission fees for Indian citizens by five times.
Over the years, mud packs have been applied to the marble to rid the surface of pollutants and dirt. The pack helps absorb the dirt, grime, and grease from the marble’s surface. One can wash off the pack with distilled water, removing the yellowish tinge and leaving the surface impeccable.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has set up certain measures to protect the precious stone inlays. It has installed barricades in front of the walls to prevent tourists from touching them. The ASI also took out a tender in 2019 to replace 400 stones on the surface of the floor surrounding the central dome of the Taj.
The seemingly endless restoration and conservation efforts at the Taj Mahal have become notorious eyesores to the visitors. Bamboo scaffolding and applications of mud packs dampen the picturesque appeal of the monument.
Conservation and restoration efforts have shown that it is not enough to merely make the monument look shinier or newer. The root causes of the degradation demand a headstrong approach for any long-lasting changes. Primarily, these are air and water pollution. A deeper analysis of the population’s lifestyles and a commitment towards a cleaner environment is critical to the preservation of our legacy, such as the Taj.
Citizens must be aware of the monument’s cultural, historical, and architectural significance. Active social involvement is pertinent to urging the government to improve conservation efforts. It is beyond question that this monumental masterpiece is an essential part of India’s heritage. Therefore, the restoration and maintenance of the Taj with due diligence and care is the need of the hour.
It is difficult for a 390-year old structure to not show signs of ageing. In a way, this long-standing structure tells the story of the ancient city of Agra. Perhaps we can derive some comfort from the fact that despite our best efforts, the Taj Mahal, which often seems otherworldly, may not retain its splendour forever.