The Taj Mahal, ASI's Paralysis and the Curious Case of the Elusive White

The Archaeological Survey of India's inability to offer a coherent defence for the deterioration of the monument suggests a serious problem, best characterised as a paucity of quality human resources, and at worst, administrative atrophy due to constant judicial and parliamentary oversight.

In 1652 CE, Prince Aurangzeb wrote to his father, Shah Jahan, detailing a long list of structural defects, particularly those affecting the dome of the Taj Mahal, which had leaked during the rainy season. Thus began the litany of unending maintenance woes of the architectural wonder recorded and reported by caretakers even as legions of admirers felt that Taj was not properly cared for. No matter what, this equation has never turned out in favour of the caretakers, as also witnessed by recent events that have pushed maintenance of the Taj into the headlines.

A year before India’s independence, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had undertaken a detailed assessment of the structure and charted out the history of interventions since 1652 (Ancient India: Bulletin of the Archaeological Survey of India, No. 1, 1946). After reading the long list of problems and concerns for structural stability due to inherent design issues and fast eroding red sandstone, the prevailing obsession with only the colour of the marble cladding seems tragi-comic! Over the years, public gaze has remained focused on the surface colour and appearance of the monument even as ASI has been labouring away in order to keep the monument safe, an unending process.

It is not as though ASI has not been concerned with the surface of the Taj Mahal. Soon after the government in power announced the setting up of a refinery at Mathura in 1977, ASI made an international appeal to pressurise the government to change the location of the refinery (Today, such a bold step seems unthinkable.) They argued that sulphur-dioxide emissions from the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) refinery would impact the marble surface.

IOC, on its part, to assuage public fear, appointed an Italian firm, TECNECO, in a consulting capacity to study the problem, after which three volumes of reports were submitted by them. Detailed scientific studies were undertaken with the setting up of monitoring stations and samples of marble from the Taj being compared with samples from the quarry among other studies. They concluded that sulphur-dioxide emissions were not a significant factor in the yellowing of the monument’s surface. It should be noted here that this report contradicted several other scientific writings on the subject by Indian experts. Through all of this, under no circumstances were the competence and commitment of the ASI brought into question.

The situation started to change when in 1984, M.C. Mehta, a lawyer, troubled by the yellowing of marble at Taj Mahal, filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India. The petition sought the removal of all polluting industries from the Taj Trapezium in order to protect this architectural wonder. Soon after, in 1987, O.P. Agrawal, director general of National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property (NRLC), Lucknow, published a study on the problems of discolouration and also concluded that pollution was not a significant cause contributing to discolouration of the Taj Mahal. Along with several local issues, an acrylic coating applied as a preservative by ASI had changed colour and this was giving the monument’s surface its discoloured appearance. This finding was one of the earliest instances of an unreported treatment by ASI being identified as a problem. Subsequently, over-cleaning also has been recognised as a probable cause for rapid deterioration of the Taj’s surface.

The ASI has been at the receiving end of the Supreme Court’s displeasure over the years, with chronic problems like algal growth and insect droppings (reported in several surveys from the earliest days) being perceived as new developments. The inability of ASI to offer a coherent defence suggests a serious problem, best characterised as a paucity of quality human resources, and at worst, an administrative atrophy due to constant judicial and parliamentary oversight.

How yellow is the Taj?

In view of the recent observations by the Supreme Court on continued deterioration of the marble surface of Taj, it is worthwhile examining the nature of white that the monument should have.

I tried to look for scientific papers published over the last 30 years or so that can help us define ‘Taj White’. But to no avail, though one must admit that literature and fiction, are both rich with wide-ranging and creative descriptions. For example, the poet Kaifi Azmi describes the Taj under moonlight as ‘a bubbling river of milk’ in his famous poem vapas chal. The romance of Taj and its gleaming white colour is part of folklore. One may even be excused if in our collective psyche, the affair resembles the numerous ‘Lalitaji’ television commercials for a detergent. But characterising the white of the Taj remains elusive! The closest description or definition could be if we call it ‘Makarana White’, after the quarry from where the marble was sourced.

That said, it is obvious that the biggest challenge for ASI is dealing with a national perception of an elusive white colour that the marble cladding of  mausoleum supposedly should have. I was particularly struck by recent news reports such as the following exchange between Supreme Court judges and an advocate – A bench of justices M.B. Lokur and Deepak Gupta saw photographs of the monument placed before it by advocate M.C. Mehta and remarked: “It (colour of the marble) was first becoming yellow. Now, it seems to be green and black.”

The above description of how the yellowing was assessed is worrisome and I would like to believe it was more scientific than what is conveyed in the news. Anyone familiar with photography and printing is aware of the way light affects colours at the time of capture and to reproduce colours faithfully, specific procedures need to be followed. I must assume that proper documenting procedure with a colour reference chart was followed for the images that were presented to the court. But, just following this methodology does not satisfy scientific criterion of imaging/assessing colour change. It would appear that ASI did not advise the court of any such requirement. In the court-room, it seems as though ASI has given up on its role as the custodian of this monument.

The Taj Mahal is reflected in a puddle in Agra, India, on August 9, 2016. Credit: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

The Taj Mahal is reflected in a puddle in Agra, India, on August 9, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

Under these circumstances one wonders if systematic colour studies have been conducted and the results over the years compiled to build a database that can be used to inform decisions about cleaning etc. Colour studies are complicated and protocol-sensitive, and absolutely essential in the current context. May I add that no known colour studies on Taj have been published by the ASI.

Around 1983-84, a study was published by ASI on a new cleaning process developed for the Taj Mahal. This was the ‘mud pack system’ that is still in use. Recently, in response to a parliamentary question about the efficacy of the cleaning method, ASI stated that the results are “satisfactory as the gloss of the surface was maintained”. This half-answer unfortunately does not fully address the issue of yellowing. Such a response encourages the general perception in the conservation community that some unreported cleaning agent is added to the earth which is leading to surface erosion and pitting.

Further, the procedure is carried out at the Taj by daily wagers who work for a contractor. I am not aware of the use of treated water for this procedure; they would need a large water-treatment plant for the purpose. Untreated water can cause further deterioration due to salt residues. Also, it appears that ASI has started the treatment from the base upwards, which means that the residue from the top collects and covers the lower area. I am hoping that both these observations are not correct; otherwise, the consequences can be disastrous.

As regards the statement by one of the senior judges [“It (colour of the marble) was first becoming yellow. Now it seems to be green and black,”] I would like to draw attention to a paper published in ICOM, Committee for Conservation, 8th triennial meeting, Sydney, Australia in 1987 by O.P. Agrawal and his colleagues, in which he has identified seven  types of discolouration on the surface of the mausoleum:

i) Uniform yellowing of the surface;

ii) Blackish accretions on the cenotaph and on the walls of the gallery inside the monument;

iii) Yellow-grey deposits on the brackets used on minarets

iv) Brown rust-like stains

v) Brown spots

vi) Green-black deposits

vii) Black patches.

As is obvious, the green-black deposits on the surface of the marble is not a new phenomenon and has been reported not only by Agrawal but also in other documents elsewhere. Therefore, the Court’s outburst of “It appears that you (ASI) do not have the expertise or you have but do not want to utilise it or you do not care about it (Taj)…” seems uncalled for.

Some of the factors affecting the Taj are not in the control of ASI. A quick reading of the report, ‘Effects of pollution on Taj Mahal’ submitted by the Parliamentary standing committee chaired by Ashwani Kumar (Member, Rajya Sabha) in July 2015, underlines this point.

Thomas Daniell, Gateway to the Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh. Coloured aquatint (1796). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) was declared by the Government of India as a pollution-free area in 1983 and an administrative authority was formed to manage pollution in 1999. The Supreme Court as part of the Mehta litigation had passed eight orders to manage the TTZ. The committee did not mince words while expressing its shock: “The committee is aghast to note that no administrative setup has been constituted for TTZ Authority and as such no mechanism is available to implement the decisions of the TTZ Authority. Only a small number of measures to reduce the pollution around the monument were implemented by Archaeological Survey of India and the Agra authorities.”

ASI too has limitations

It appears that post-1984, the ASI has had no autonomy in deciding the treatment plan for the Taj, as it has been working on the directions of the Supreme Court and various Parliamentary Committees. The ASI’s jurisdiction is restricted to the monument and the buffer zone. It does not have the legal mandate or the judicial authority to do anything within the TTZ.

The much-maligned institution (ASI) does invite some of the flak that it has been receiving, for it has failed to modernise and keep up with the fast-paced developments in the field of conservation. But, to be fair to them, at Agra the ASI is not functioning in an independent capacity. As the only constitutionally designated (Indian Constitution, Seventh Schedule) technical institution with more than 100 years of experience in the preservation of monuments, it has been treated poorly. Having been made to follow the Supreme Court’s directives along with those of Parliamentary committees, I would assume that some sort of ‘administrative paralysis syndrome’ must have set in. Given that two important institutions were involved in deciding what needs to be done, is it fair to single out the ASI for failure without the involved institutions also sharing some responsibility for the failures to execute the designated plan for making TTZ a pollution-free zone?

The limitations of the ASI are more than apparent and it is obvious that they need to look outwards for help. We do have some expertise within the country and further collaborations with international institutions like the Getty Conservation Institute (Los Angles) and Opificio delle pietre dure (Florence) that are at the forefront of research in conservation can be beneficial. What is required is a systematic and scientific approach with a research project to monitor and address the various conservation challenges. A long-term management plan free from ad hoc orders and oversight would go a long way in taking care of the Taj Mahal. It would also help if romantic perceptions of the creative kind were not made part of the scientific debate.

I can say with some conviction based on my experience, that if we moderate our insistence on this vague notions of ‘Taj White’, we probably will end up extending its life by several centuries.

Sanjay Dhar is a materials conservator, specialising in conservation of wall paintings. He was instrumental in the setting up the Intach Art Conservation Center, Delhi and has served as a consultant on projects for UNESCO, World Monuments Fund and National Mission for Manuscripts.