Taj Mahal Threatened With Demolition

Completed in the 17th century by grief-stricken emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal is an architectural landmark on the brink. (Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

It's something so implausible that it's hard to even process. The Supreme Court of India has threatened to shutter or outright demolish the Taj Mahal unless the government ramps up its efforts to preserve the 400-year-old mausoleum and protect it from a never-ending onslaught of air pollution.

As the Smithsonian notes, the notion of closing the Taj Mahal to visitors and then razing it is undoubtedly a bluff — a bluff that officials are going out of their way not to call. In other words, chances are slim that one of the world's most iconic architectural landmarks could actually come face to face with the wrecking ball.

Still, the very mention of the dreaded "D" word in relation to the Taj Mahal is disheartening and once again draws attention to the plight of this soaring white-marble edifice — no doubt the most grandiose monument in history to be erected in memory of an emperor's dead third wife — that's seen much better days.

"Either we shut down the Taj or demolish it or you restore it," a two-judge committee recently warned officials with both the state and federal governments. As reported by the Art Newspaper, the court requested that federal officials produce a concrete plan of attack that details how it plans to save the heavily trafficked, pollution-stained UNESCO World Heritage site.

Taj Mahal from the river
While it might still look majestic from afar, the Taj Mahal, an architectural icon the world over, has seen better days. (Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Sensing that the Supreme Court is not messing around, the government is now in the midst of preparing an affidavit that includes a 100-year protection plan for the site. Per the Times of India, actions outlined in the plan include shuttering nearby oil refineries and other pollution-spewing industries that have sullied the Taj Mahal's once-pristine appearance over the decades. Officials also plan to introduce green mass transit options to the area to further prevent discoloration of the Taj brought on by stifling air pollution. Infrastructural overhauls that would prevent industrial discharge from flowing into the Yamuna River have also been proposed as has a widespread switch to clean-burning bio-ethanol fuels in and around Agra, the large and touristy city that's home to the Taj.

"We'll take all possible measures on a war footing in a time bound manner to conserve the Taj Mahal and protect it from all kinds of pollution, be it air or water," water resources minister Nitin Gadkari explains to the Times. "We are sad over the Supreme Court's observations. We, perhaps, couldn't tell the court as to what all we have already done and what all we have been doing. We'll inform the court all this in our affidavit."

The Taj Mahal abuts the particularly filthy Yamuna River.
The Taj Mahal abuts the particularly filthy Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges that's been referred to as a 'sewer drain.'. (Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

Assaults from the air and water

As Gadkari hints at, the federal government and officials in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh haven't been sitting around idle as the Taj Mahal goes to seed.

Archaeologists have repeatedly applied a cleansing, low-impact "mudpack" treatment of sorts to the Taj's yellowed — and in some parts, brown-ish — exterior walls to help lift pollution stains and return the structure to its milky white glory.

The process, however, is expensive, time-consuming and, of course, doesn't last, which is why the Supreme Court is forcibly nudging the government to explore more permanent pollution-curbing solutions in lieu of costly cosmetic clean-up jobs.

Some nearby factories have also been forced to close while structural repairs to the flailing monument are seemingly never-ending. But in the eyes of the Supreme Court of India and others, this is all too little, too late.

Scaffolding Taj Mahal
Preservation work on the Taj Mahal has been dragging on for years, much to the chagrin of tourists seeking unfettered views. (Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

In an impassioned editorial, Aroon Purie, editor-in-chief of the DailyO, explains that "the world won't forgive of us" if the Taj continues to suffer environmental damage and fall into a state of disrepair. He paints a grim picture:

Cracks are appearing in the structure. The minarets are tilting. Stones and materials are falling off. Acute water and air pollution are changing the colour of the marble, from light yellow to brown. Illegal encroachments, industries and activities are mushrooming in the vicinity, the CCTVs do not work, all the drains around the site are clogged. And the Yamuna, which cradles the Taj, is dying, putting at risk the foundation of the mausoleum. Hordes of insects flying out of the river are soiling the monument. A poem in stone, it seems, has now turned into a hive of ailments.

In May, prior to issuing its attention-grabbing ultimatum, the court noted that instead of demonstrating aggression in saving the cherished landmark federal and state governments had shown "lethargy." Per the BBC, the court then recommended that the state seek out foreign assistance in saving the Taj, particularly in remedying "the worrying change of colour" apparent on the walls of the 17th century marble mausoleum, which receives 70,000 visitors daily.

In addition to dramatically slashing hazardous emissions, cleaning up and preventing further pollution in the Yamuna River is particularly important to the longevity and cleanliness of the Taj Mahal and for reasons you might not expect.

The "hordes of insects" mentioned by Purie are Chironomus calligraphus, a mosquito-like pest thats numbers have increased in the vicinity of the monument in recent years. The continued unchecked dumping of waste directly into the river has led to a surge in algal growth, much to the delight of insects that feast on the algae. After dining on polluted river gunk, the insects then swarm the Taj Mahal, attracted to its shiny white walls. This inevitably leads to the exterior being covered with thick layers of green-ish dung.

Unlike the stains left behind by air pollution, the insect poop can be easily washed away with water. But as archeologist Bhuvan Vikram Singh explained to the India Times that's besides the point:

"We are trying to clean it with water. But cleaning the Taj Mahal with water will not solve the problem. We know where and how these insects grow, so if we solve the problem at the basic level, we can stop them from growing in numbers and there will be no marks on the Taj."

Smoggy Taj Mahal
On many days, the Taj Mahal is enveloped in a thick blanket of smog. An obvious tourism hotspot, the city of Agra is one of the most polluted in India. (Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

A case of 'bureaucratic apathy?'

Writing for Asia-Pacific online news magazine The Diplomat, New Dehli-based journalist Neeta Lal takes a deep dive into the woeful state of the Taj Mahal.

Noting how the monument has been ravaged by "gross governmental neglect" and "bureaucratic apathy" in addition to rampant pollution, Lal details alarming environmental reports that have come out of Agra — the eighth most polluted city in the world in terms of particulate matter per World Health Organization statistics and the fourth most polluted city in India — in recent years. (The first alarm-sounding governmental report concerning the impact of pollution on the Taj Mahal was published in 1978.)

In 1996, the first major Supreme Court-ordered maneuver to limit pollution around the Taj Mahal was established in the form of the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ). A 10,400 km (about 4,000 square miles) buffer zone of sorts that also cover 40 other vulnerable protected monuments and two other World Heritage Sites. While the move was considered aggressive at the time, it's now apparent that something didn't take. "Ironically, the TTZ today is one of the most polluted belts in the world," writes Lal.

Lal goes onto explain that shutting down — or even demolishing — the Taj Mahal is "hardly the way to go about solving the problem." She suggests that a combination of "political will with citizens engagement and regulating footfalls at the monument" will yield the most beneficial results.

Other alternatives for preservation

One solution pitched by the Archeological Survey of India, the governmental entity that oversees the site, is to limit the number of daily domestic tourists to 40,000. (It's unclear if there would be a cap on foreign tourists as well.) Those allowed on the grounds would be limited to a three-hour visit.

In December, the Archeological Survey of India increased the price for an all-inclusive ticket dramatically by 400 percent for domestic visitors in hopes of curbing the amount of tourists. The ticket price for Indian residents increased from 50 rupees to 250 rupees in a nation where the average daily salary is 270 rupees. The ticket price for foreign visitors only increased 15 percent.

"We want people to pay more to limit the footfall," an official from the Archaeological Survey of India told The Telegraph. "This will cut down the number of visitors to the mausoleum by at least 15-20 percent and generate revenue for its conservation."

Putting the Taj up for "adoption" so that public and private corporations could intervene is also an option being mulled over although not without controversy.

"In theory heritage adoption sounds like a great idea," says Dr. Rakesh Behari, a local conservationist, tells Lal. "But it also makes the country's priceless heritage vulnerable to exploitation. Tomorrow, if the adoptive company wants to allow raucous private weddings at the venue, how will the government control that? There needs to be a solid system of checks and balances in place before such a big step is taken."