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Taj Mahal deserves better

Author Mahendra Ved Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2017 (15:15 IST)
TAJ Mahal, one of the world’s seven wonders and a United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation-designated World Heritage Site, that Rabindranath Tagore memorably described as “a teardrop on the cheek of time, forever and ever”, is facing multiple threats to its existence.
They have for long emanated from official apathy and attempts at encroachment on its space. Climatic changes and industrial pollution have caused what scientists call cancer to its marble that is no longer pristine and yellowing. It lives among contradictions. Even as tourist footfalls mar its space, it must continue to attract more tourists as the biggest single magnet that brings them to India.
More than 10 million tourists visited Agra to see it last year, but there has been a 35 percent fall since 2012. Research shows that international tourists are attracted by things they want to see, like the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace in Britain, or the Eiffel Tower and Versailles in France, or the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building in the United States.
Alas, adding to the environmental threats and more is the current political environment, of an ostensible prejudice against a monument past Muslim rulers built.
A Taj replica has for long been a favourite memento of governments for foreign dignitaries. Now, Yogi Adityanath, the ascetic chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, where the monument is located, says it “does not reflect the Indian culture”, and guests of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others in the government are gifted copies of Bhagwad Geeta and Ramayana, the Hindu scriptures.
The 17th century Mughal monument has found no mention in 36-page UP Tourism booklet, released last week. Opposition parties have accused Yogi of deliberately ignoring the Taj.
Yogi has, in a U-turn, declared as “integral part of Indian culture”, and his tourism minister, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, says her government has been “misunderstood”.
If there is misunderstanding, Yogi, a hard-line proponent of majoritarian, essentially anti-Muslim, platform, must blame himself, his party and the constant attempt at rewriting the country’s history.
Official apathy has been always there. Court strictures have stalled but not fully prevented successive central and state governments from seeking “permission” to alter the monument’s landscape with disregard to its ambience.
“Do you want to destroy Taj?”, a Supreme Court judge recently admonished the state government during the hearing of an application seeking its nod to cut over 400 trees to lay down an additional railway track linking Mathura to Delhi.
“This is a world famous monument and you (government) want to destroy it? Have you seen the recent pictures of Taj? Go to the Internet and have a look at it. If you want, then file an affidavit or application and say that the Union of India wants to destroy the Taj,” the judge thundered.
This was not the first such stricture, nor is it likely to be the last. Everyone wants to milk the Taj. The Archaeological Survey of India, the official caretaker, is often in conflict or connivance with the civic authorities of a congested Agra city and of the tourism departments of the central and state governments.
While illegal parking and severe traffic congestion are recent problems, my years as a young reporter were spent in writing about the older ones that persist, like pollution caused by proliferation of the iron foundries and an oil refinery of the state sector Indian Oil Corporation.
My expert guide, Professor Shivaji Rao, director of the National Environment Engineering Institute, would passionately say how pollution had bedeviled the entire “Braja Bhoomi”, home to ancient Hindu temples in nearby Mathura and the 16th-century Fatehpur Sikri that the Mughal rulers built.
Four decades hence, looking at periodic scaffoldings around the Taj to put a coat of chemicals that are supposed to prevent the cancer caused by sulphuric acid that the refinery and the foundries emit do indicate some effort, but I am unsure if the environmental threat is being effectively tackled.
One cannot ignore the social strains that combine with the physical onslaughts on the Taj, when competing claims are made by religious communities seeking court permission to pray there.
Since only Muslims are permitted to offer prayers at the monument, an Aug 30 petition this year, demanded that be allowed to worship in it. Government archaeologists reject the claim the structure was built by Hindus and that they should be allowed to worship there.
Lone Hindu mavericks, revisionists or extremist Hindu groups have claimed that the Taj is a Hindu temple. Such claims have been periodically made since a 1989 book Taj Mahal: the True Story by the late P.N. Oak, who insisted it was built as a Shiva temple before the advent of Muslim invaders and rulers.
“History shows conquerors all over the world converting existing monuments to suit their own ideas,” said Parsa Venkateshwar Rao, an author and columnist.
“But this claim about the Taj is absurd because features such as the dome and minaret cannot be found in earlier periods and it is silly for the judge to have even allowed the petition.”
The Taj belongs not only to India: as Unesco’s recognition indicates, it belongs to all of humanity — much as did the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and Palmyra in Syria. They are destroyed, while the Taj remains, and must be preserved.
A famous Sanskrit phrase from the Maha Upanishads “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, which means the world is one family might seem like a distant dream when it comes to the political, religious and social history of the world!
Taj Mahal deserves better.
[ Mahendra Ved is the president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association
2016-2018 and a Consultant with Power Politics monthly magazine ]
[ Pic Courtesy : tajmahal.gov.in ]
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