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Sunday, July 13, 2003

Heritage

Perils the Taj has faced
K.R.N. Swamy

The past 50 years have been the most damaging to the Taj
The past 50 years have been the most 
damaging to the Taj

MUGHAL history states that the Taj Mahal was begun in 1631, the year Empress Mumtaj Mahal died and was completed 22 years later in 1653 (350 years ago), employing 20,000 workmen. Thanks to the researches done on the history of the Taj Mahal by eminent historians in the 20th century, we have a vast amount of literature on the mausoleum and authoritative books like Architecture by Neil Stevenson have confirmed that 1653 was the year of completion of the Taj Mahal.

In the 350 years of its history, the Taj Mahal faced a number of threats, especially in the period 1707-1857, and one must be thankful that the mausoleum as such stayed intact. The ornate screen of silver and gold surrounding the cenotaph of Mumtaj Mahal was replaced with a marble screen by Shah Jahanís son, Emperor Aurangzeb, in 1668. In a way, it was a wise decision, as the first invaders to despoil the Taj Mahal were the Jats from nearby Bharatpur in the first half of the 18th century. The two chandeliers, one of agate and another of silver, which were hung over the main cenotaph, were taken away by them and they would not have left out the gold/silver screen. According to Mughal historian Kanbo, the15-foot high finial at the top of the main dome of the Taj Mahal was covered with a gold shield and this was also removed during the Jat despoliation. But the British, who succeeded in taking Agra city from Mughals in the early 1800s, proved to be a greater danger. The Governor-General Lord Bentinck, (as per the Calcutta newspaper John Bull of July 26, 1831) wanted to demolish the Taj Mahal and sell away the marble. But the highest bid was only Rs 1,50,000 and the Taj was saved.

 


But the greatest peril the Taj Mahal ever faced was in early 1940s, when one American air force cargo plane, fully laden with fuel and taking off from Agra airport, almost crashed into the main dome. To paraphrase the pilotís words from one issue of the Readerís Digest in the 1960s, "I had landed in Agra military airfield on my mission and had the aircraft refuelled. But after taking off, I found that the plane was very slow to rise and right in front of me was the famous Taj Mahal. With great effort, I managed to swing the aircraft away from the main dome of the mausoleum and lumbered away by hundred feet. The tomb was being repaired and I could see clearly the shocked faces of the workers on the scaffold around the main dome as they tried to move away to safety from the impending crash." Later, enquiries by the pilot revealed that it was overloading of the aircraft with excess fuel that made it difficult for it to gain altitude. The ground refuellers, had wrongly fuelled the aircraft in adding nearly 2.2 times extra fuel!

But according to environmentalists, it is the past 50 years that have been the most damaging to the Taj Mahal. Till 1999, the pollution around the Taj Mahal from factories in Agra was five times the permitted level, ruining the marble. That year, High Court judgements on public interest litigation moved by heritage lovers forced the government to take steps to remove the factories and oil refinery, whose fumes were eating away the Taj Mahal. In 2002, the Indian multinational Tata & Sons offered to take care of the Taj Mahal, as a part of their service to the nation and after considerable discussions, the Government of India signed an agreement. The Tata group intends spending Rs 200 million in two phases in the next few years to rejuvenate the Taj Mahal and its environment. International experts from the famous Getty Museum and the Smithsonian Museum of the USA and UNESCO would be brought to restore the damaged engravings, the inlaid pietra dura work, the gardens with the fountains and revamp the lighting system. A state-of-the-art tourist centre, with knowledgeable interpreters, computerised ticketing, washrooms, cafeteria facilities and curio sales is planned.

In the past hundred years, considerable research has been done on the Taj Mahal and many myths have been cleared. It was once believed that the Italian Geronimo Veroneo or Frenchman Austin de Bordeaux might have been the architects of the Taj Mahal. But manuscripts written in the 17th century and translated in the 1930s, have shown that while the Taj Mahal was the result of team work by nearly 37 experts, the captain of the building team was Ustad Ahmad, also known as Isa Affandi, a Persian architect-designer from Lahore. He received the highest monthly salary of Rs 1000, equivalent to Rs 500,000 today.

One legend that has grown around the Taj Mahal PS that Shah Jahan wanted to make another Taj Mahal for himself, but in black marble on the other bank of the river and connect the two by a marble bridge. However romantic this plan might have been, it would have cost at least five times more than the Taj Mahal owing to the higher cost of black marble.

Surprisingly, the first initiation of Taj Mahal in the world was built by his son Emperor Aurangzeb, who built the Bibi-ka-Muqbara in Aurangabad in South India, in honour of his Empress Durrani Begum within 25 years of the completion of the Taj Mahal. Since then many attempts to build mausoleums like the Taj Mahal have been made in different parts of the world. The latest in India was by a grieving husband, who made a model of the Taj Mahal in cement in a suburb of Bangalore in 1998, at a cost of Rs 1,50,000 in memory of his deceased wife.

Of all the efforts, the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, started by Lord Curzon in 1903, in memory of
Queen Victoria (1817-1901), has succeeded in being a magnificent mausoleum, but does not have the haunting refrain of sadness, that is the hallmark of the Taj Mahal. Nobody has been able to make an edifice that evokes the pathos and affection distinct to the Taj Mahal which has been described as "A teardrop on the cheeks of time" by the national bard Rabindranath Tagore.
ó MF

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