Described by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore as “a teardrop on the face of eternity”, the Taj Mahal is undoubtedly the zenith of Mughal architecture. Volumes have been written on its perfection, and its image adorns countless glossy brochures and guidebooks; nonetheless, the reality never fails to overwhelm all who see it, and few words can do it justice.
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The magic of the monument is strangely undiminished by the crowds of tourists who visit, as small and insignificant as ants in the face of the immense mausoleum. That said, the Taj is at its most alluring in the relative quiet of early morning, shrouded in mist and bathed with a soft red glow. As its vast marble surfaces fall into shadow or reflect the sun, its colour changes from soft grey and yellow to pearly cream and dazzling white. This play of light is an important decorative device, symbolically implying the presence of Allah, who is never represented in physical form. To really appreciate it fully however, you’d have to stick around from dawn until dusk.
Overlooking the Yamuna River, the Taj Mahal stands at the northern end of a vast walled garden. Though its layout follows a distinctly Islamic theme, representing Paradise, it is above all a monument to romantic love. Shah Jahan built the Taj to enshrine the body of his favourite wife, Arjumand Bann Begum, better known by her official palace title, Mumtaz Mahal (“Chosen One of the Palace”), who died shortly after giving birth to her fourteenth child in 1631 – the number of children she bore the emperor is itself a tribute to her hold on him, given the number of other wives and concubines that the emperor would have been able to call on. The emperor was devastated by her death, and set out to create an unsurpassed monument to her memory – its name, “Taj Mahal”, is simply a shortened, informal version of Mumtaz Mahal’s palace title. Construction by a workforce of some twenty thousand men from all over Asia commenced in 1632 and took more than twenty years, not being completed until 1653. Marble was brought from Makrana, near Ajmer in Rajasthan, and semi-precious stones for decoration – onyx, amethyst, lapis lazuli, turquoise, jade, crystal, coral and mother-of-pearl – were carried to Agra from Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China and the Indian Ocean. Eventually, Shah Jahan’s pious and intolerant son Aurangzeb seized power, and the former emperor was interned in Agra Fort, where as legend would have it he lived out his final years gazing wistfully at the Taj Mahal. When he died in January 1666, his body was carried across the river to lie alongside his beloved wife in his peerless tomb.
The Taj Mahal: a monument under threat
Despite the seemingly impregnable sense of serenity and other-worldliness which clings to the Taj, in reality, India’s most famous building faces serious threats from traffic and industrial pollution, and from the millions of tourists who visit it each year. Marble is all but impervious to the onslaught of wind and rain that erodes softer sandstone, but it has no natural defence against the sulphur dioxide that lingers in a dusty haze and shrouds the monument; sometimes the smog is so dense that the tomb cannot be seen from the fort. Sulphur dioxide mixes with atmospheric moisture and settles as sulphuric acid on the surface of the tomb, making the smooth white marble yellow and flaky, and forming a subtle fungus that experts have named “marble cancer”.
The main sources of pollution are the continuous flow of vehicles along the national highways that skirt the city, and the seventeen hundred factories in and around Agra – chemical effluents belched out from their chimneys are well beyond recommended safety limits. Despite laws demanding the installation of pollution-control devices, the imposition of a ban on all petrol- and diesel-fuelled traffic within 500m of the Taj Mahal, and an exclusion zone banning new industrial plants from an area of 10,400 square kilometres around the complex, pollutants in the atmosphere have continued to rise.
Cleaning work on the Taj Mahal rectifies the problem to some extent, but the chemicals used will themselves eventually affect the marble – attendants already shine their torches on “repaired” sections of marble to demonstrate how they’ve lost their translucency. The government has responded by setting up a pollution monitoring station to check on levels of N2O and SO2 in the atmosphere, but as far back as 2007, a parliamentary committee was reporting that, aside from the threat from these acidic gases, particulate matter in the air was slowly turning the Taj yellow; the report recommended treatment with a non-corrosive clay pack – something like a building-sized face-pack – to remove particle deposits from the marble, but so far no action has been taken.
From time to time scare reports surface to the effect that the Taj’s four minarets are listing and in danger of keeling over. Luckily, this proves to be a false alarm: the minarets were deliberately constructed leaning slightly outwards in order to counteract an optical illusion which would have made them appear to lean inwards when seen from ground level if they were actually exactly vertical. Despite their lean, they are quite stable.