The Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal:

What has become the symbol of India is actually a tomb, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth in 1631. It is said that the Emperor was so heart-broken that his hair turned gray overnight. Taking 22 years to build, with the labor of some 20,000 architects, workers and artists, it is considered the most extravagant monument ever built out of love. The Taj Mahal is the masterpiece of Muslim art in India and was listed as World Heritage site in 1983.

You enter the monument through a magnificent red sandstone gateway to find yourself facing the mausoleum on the other side of a long canal, its reflection in the clear water. Classical Mughal gardens, cut by canals, separate the entrance from the mausoleum. Built entirely of white marble and seated upon a marble platform, the Taj is an architectural masterpiece, beautiful and graceful. Four decorative minarets sit on the platform, at angles with the building. Twin red sandstone buildings border the Taj on either side, parallel to the river. The perfect symmetry of the whole is marred only by the tomb of Shah Jahan, the man who built the Taj. His son, the Emperor Aurangzeb, placed his coffin next to that of his wife. The two tombs are in an underground room, while false ones are above ground for everyone to see, a common practice in mausoleums of this type. Just the barest hint of light penetrates this room through windows of finely chiseled marble. It is too dark to see much of anything, and the atmosphere is very somber.

The Taj is just as beautiful in its detail as it is in its symmetry and construction. Beautiful floral motifs and others are formed in semi-precious stones incrusted in the white marble, in a technique called “pietra dura.” Over 43 different types of stone were used for Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb. The all-white marble is especially impressive. The tomb is perfect in its detail, down even to its foundation made of ebony. As you walk barefoot in the Taj and on its platform, you feel that there is a sort of purity. Perhaps it is the white marble.

The Taj, built out of love…seems romantic, right? Until you realize that Shah Jahan had the hands or thumbs of some of the laborers amputated in order to prevent the Taj being surpassed by a monument of even greater magnificence.

Threats to the Monument:
Many threats menace the survival of the Taj Mahal, which means “Crown Palace.” Pollution is the number one threat. According to the WHO, Agra lies within an “intensely polluted zone.” Industries based upon coal and gas give off such pollution that visibility is often reduced to several hundred yards. There seems to be always a hazy fog over the city, and the sky is anything but blue. It is possible that the pollution will inflict irreversible damage to the monument, whose surface is already becoming discolored.

The number of visitors doesn’t help. Ten million visit the monument each year, with 100,000 to 200,000 coming every Friday.

Efforts at Conservation:
Political measures have been taken to counter the effects of pollution, but putting them in place has been a long and slow process. New industrial plants are forbidden within a perimeter of 10,000 sq. m. and the Supreme Court has ordered nearly 260 factories to either move or adopt gas energy. Vehicles are not allowed to enter the monument grounds and may not park within 500 m. of the grounds. Thousands of trees have been planted in the vicinity, so that they will absorb some of the pollution. To help keep the grounds clean, absolutely nothing – aside from water and a camera – can be taken inside. Metal detectors and security guards are posted at the entrance to this effect, and monstrously long lines – one for men and one for women – make their way down the street. The mausoleum is closed one day per week for cleaning.

Despite these measures and despite the fact that the government has spent a lot of money in the effort, they are still insufficient. The quantity of suspended particles in the air is still 5 times higher than the maximum that the Taj Mahal can withstand. We have to hope that more adequate measures will be adopted so that future generations will be able to enjoy the beauty of what many consider a “wonder of the world.” And we must hope that the Taj Mahal will always be conserved as India’s fine jewel and “Crown Palace.”