What Really Ails the Taj Mahal?

After spending so much time and effort and several resources, it is still not clear whether we are asking the right set of questions.

Built by Shah Jahan in the memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal continues to remain one of the most emblematic and iconic visual representations of India. However, this internationally renowned World Heritage Site, which also figures among the recently declared ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’, has been in the news for less palatable reasons in the last few decades – either as a site of divisive politics or as a monument under grave environmental threat.

The storm unleashed by these two trajectories have given rise to a barrage of existential questions about the 17th-century architectural marvel – is the monument a tomb or a temple? Does it belong to the Sunni Waqf Board or the government? Does it represent India’s culture? Why is the Taj turning yellow? Why are brown and green spots appearing on the structure? Is the Taj likely to sink? For the first time in its history, the 400-year-old monument has been dragged to court over some of these questions.

While questions relating to the Taj’s origins and ownership are unlikely to subside as long as it remains a site of polarised politics, making it difficult to provide answers acceptable to all sides , the situation is not so bleak with regard to addressing questions regarding the environmental threat to the Taj, in the light of significant advances in science and technology and related conservations methods. At least one hopes so. And, it is also possible to prevent further damage to its structure, if not reverse the damage already done.

What is causing the discolouration of the marble?

The most visible sign of deterioration is the discolouration of the main tomb’s marble surface for which air pollution is offered as the cause. However, when it comes to pointing out the specific pollutants, the explanations have kept changing.

The idea that air pollution was a severe threat to the Taj first gained ground in the 1970s when the Indian Oil Corporation set up an oil refinery at Mathura, 40 kms from Agra. Environmental activists and conservationists argued that the marble surface of the monument was getting discoloured and corroded by the refinery’s sulphur dioxide emissions and the resultant acid rain. In 1982, the government of India declared the formation of the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) – a trapezoid-shaped area of 10,400 sq km around the monument where setting up or expansion of polluting industries was prohibited.

In 1984, M.C. Mehta, a Supreme Court advocate and environmental activist, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against the government for failing to protect the monument from airborne pollutants being released by industries and vehicles in the area around. Meanwhile, reports by various committees/agencies, such as the S. Varadarajan Committee (1978), the New Delhi-based Central Board for the Prevention and Control of Water Pollution (1981-1982) and the Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI, 1990 and 1993), recommended, among other things, the reduction of sulphur emissions from the Mathura refinery, the use of natural gas as an alternative fuel, the setting up of a green belt and the shifting of polluting industries outside the TTZ.

In the 1990s, the debate on the locus of pollution shifted from the Mathura refinery and thermal plants to rest on the small-scale industries of Agra and Firozabad – foundries, glass units, ferro-alloy industries, as well as rubber processing, lime processing, engineering and brick factories.

Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board reported that the levels of suspended particulate matter (SPM), which had declined in the period 1991-1994 following the closure of coal-based industrial units and the shifting out of a thermal power plant, had begun to rise after 1994. According to the Board, this was owing to emissions from the Mathura Oil Refinery, increase in the number of vehicles, and the use of diesel-based generators during power cuts following the shifting out of the thermal power plant.

In 1996 came the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court of India. Responding to Mehta’s writ petition, the apex court banned the use of coal and coke in industries located within the TTZ and ordered a switch to clean compressed natural gas (CNG). Industries which failed to meet this criterion were to be relocated or shut down.

In 2010, a NEERI study pointed out that the Taj Mahal was once again becoming vulnerable to rising air and water pollution. This was despite an investment of Rs 220 crore in 1998 by the Central government to improve the environmental quality of the TTZ. In particular, the study found that the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NOX), which has the potential to discolour marble by acidic corrosion, had shown a declining trend till 2002 after which it started rising again, crossing the levels of 1996. NEERI attributed this to the rise in human and vehicular population.

In 2014-2015, a team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Wisconsin and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, found that the burning of fossil fuels and biomass (like firewood and farm waste) releases black and brown carbon particles which, along with light-absorbing dust, are responsible for the discoloration of the surface of the monument.

In May 2018, taking strong note of the overall yellow hue of the marble and the black, brown and green patches on the monument, the Supreme Court pulled up the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for failing to prevent its discolouration. One of the immediate responses of the Union Ministry of Culture was to declare that it would set up a committee to scientifically assess the original colour of the Taj. This is not going to be an easy task.

The Taj Mahal around evening: a luminous shade of gold and orange. Credit: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

What is the original colour of the marble used to build the Taj?

Most accounts of the monument talk about its aesthetics, architecture, beauty or symbolism. Very few have mentioned the colour of the marble. Lahauri, a historian at Shah Jahan’s court, gives a detailed account of the Taj complex on the occasion of its formal completion (1643, when the tomb and gardens were complete), on the 12th anniversary of Mumtaz Mahal’s death. He uses the expression “white marble” several times to describe the façade, platform and the dome. The British Viceroy, Lord Curzon, who first saw the Taj in 1887, found it to be a “snow-white emanation starting from a bed of cypresses, and backed by a turquoise sky…”

According to historical sources, the marble (sang-e-marmar) that was used for the construction of the Taj, was sourced from Makrana in Rajasthan. This marble is considered to be white (some say milky white) with grey or black streaks. Art historian Ebba Koch, who has authored The Complete Taj Mahal, says that due to its capacity to transmit and refract light, the white marble reacts differently to different atmospheric conditions at different times of the day. The Taj thus appears pinkish in the morning, dazzling white at noon, golden orange in the evenings and another kind of white at night. In his work, Marble in India, scholar Coggin Brown emphasises the point that white marble’s translucency makes it react very interestingly to atmospheric changes. Perhaps the Mughal poet Kalim also noticed it:

….Nay, not marble: because of its translucent colour (ab-u-rang)
The eye can mistake it for a cloud….

The whole idea of ‘white’ is relative in the case of the Taj. The colour of the marble varies according to the hour, day and season, and this phenomenon adds to the mystical aura of the monument. In any case, not only has the marble undergone a natural wear and tear process over four centuries; the climatic conditions too have changed.

Is the question about determining the original colour of the marble then the most relevant question to ask at a time when the monument is crying for attention? Apparently, there’s a plan to trace the original colour by comparing current photographs of the monument – once it has been cleaned, that is – with vintage images that are over 100 years old. How ‘original’ will that colour be, and at what time of the day? Say, the committee’s finding is accepted unanimously, but what of it? Will that offer any permanent solution or stop further degradation of the structure?

Is discolouration the only problem?

Predictably, the debate on the colour of the marble has once again sidelined the many real threats being faced by the Taj – what is the state of the sandstone which constitutes a large part of the monument complex? How is a polluted Yamuna affecting the monument? How and why are green spots appearing on the Taj? How is increasing tourist traffic impacting the complex?

The waning strength of sandstone and increasing footfalls

The façade of the Taj is not being affected by discolouration and corrosion of marble alone. “The condition of sandstone”, Koch points out, “has got less attention, though it is in a more precarious condition due to porosity.” Its surface is also getting flaked. In addition, there are related problems of slabs cracking and breaking. Even the walkways in the garden, terraces and buildings are getting affected because of the increasing tourist traffic.

That the Taj was always designed to attract tourists is evident by the fact that bazaars and caravan-sarai formed a part of the larger complex, says Koch. The idea was to finance the maintenance of the monument with the revenue accruing from the shops and from providing shelter for travellers and their animals.

Over the years, the number of visitors has increased manifold, making one wonder about ‘its carrying capacity’. On most weekdays, the Taj attracts over 10,000 visitors, with the number going up substantially over the weekends. During the peak tourist season, mostly between October and March, it receives over 60,000 visitors on certain days. According to the Ministry of Tourism, four to six million tourists visited the Taj Mahal every year between 2010 and 2015.

Linked to this is another issue, namely that many a tourist has an irresistible desire to touch the marble. Why just tourists, some guides unthinkingly do the same while explaining aspects of the monument to visitors. Moreover, in the age of digital photography and the selfie culture, a larger number of visitors are spending more time in the complex and giving way to the temptation to be tactile. The touch, often with moist or greasy hands, leaves marks on the monument which only aggressive cleaning substances can wipe off. In places, the ‘monument of love’ has been defaced by graffiti as well.

Further, the humidity caused by human presence in the inner chambers has led to the discolouration of their interiors. The ASI is now considering a move to restrict the number of tourists to 40,000 per day.

How important is the Yamuna to the Taj?

What is not so well-known is the fact that the Yamuna River forms an integral part of the architecture of the Taj and also of the total visual experience of the complex. A particular stretch of the river, where it bends sharply, was consciously chosen for the construction of the mausoleum. The idea, points out Koch, was to create an earthly replica of the house of Mumtaz Mahal in the gardens of paradise.

For that matter, even Humayun’s tomb was designed to be a paradise garden. However, in the case of the Taj, there was a significant design departure. Unlike the earlier imperial tomb gardens, where the tomb was placed at the centre of the char bagh (four-fold garden), the mausoleum at the Taj was placed at the end of the garden.

Garbage is seen on the polluted banks of the river Yamuna near the Taj Mahal. Credit: PTI

In her work Paradise as a Garden in Persia and Mughal India, art historian Elizabeth B. Moynihan points out that the tomb once stood between two char baghs separated by the Yamuna, the other garden being the present-day Mehtab Bagh located on the other side of the river. When viewed from the river-front pavilion on the opposite bank, the Taj gave the appearance of an ethereal tomb floating on sacred waters. The mausoleum and its image, Moynihan argues, united the two char baghs and symbolically stood at the centre of an ordered universe – the paradise ideal.

The setting up of the tomb complex on the Yamuna was a particularly complex exercise and for that, the sand on the river bank had to be stabilised. Koch draws attention to Kalim’s verse which offers a unique technical account in a lyrical manner – of foundation wells encased in wood and filled with rubble, mortar and iron. His account, she says, is also supported by excavations of the foundations of the Taj carried out in the 1950s.

Interestingly, a new debate has now surfaced regarding the foundations and structural stability of the monument. R. Nath, an expert on Mughal architecture, and some environmentalists have reportedly pointed out that the wood used in the foundation wells requires a constant flow of water to remain firm. When constantly moist, according to experts, the wood fibres retain their dimensional stability – that is, the ability to maintain their original dimensions when subjected to a change in humidity and temperature. However, seeing the constantly depleting water levels of the Yamuna, it is only a matter of time before the wood in the foundation wells starts to decay. The Taj, Nath says, therefore “has a natural tendency to slide or sink into the river.” It’s quite another matter that this aspect has never been systematically discussed or debated in the relevant circles.

In addition to depleting water levels, the Yamuna is beset by the massive problem of pollution. Archaeologists have recently pointed out that the green-black spots appearing on the marble surface of the Taj are due to the greenish-black excrement left behind by aquatic insects called Chironomus Calligraphus. These insects thrive on algae and increasing phosphorus levels in the river. More than 50 drains reportedly flow into the Yamuna, releasing vast quantities of sewage which is very conducive to the growth of algae. Garbage dumps along the banks of the river also add to the pollution.

The presence of phosphorus, on the other hand, is attributed to the ash released in the course of cremating bodies at funeral grounds near the monument. The burning of biomass at cremation grounds has also been linked to air pollution in the area (which, as studies have pointed out, contributes to the discolouration of the Taj). In addition, the washing of cattle in the river has been found to increase the pollution levels.

That is not all. Recent studies have shown that the burning of municipal solid waste (MSW) releases particulate matter in the atmosphere. Some of this unsegregated waste also finds its way to the river through the drains and sewers where it is dumped.

Has science failed us or have we failed science?

Clearly, the threats to the Taj are complex and multi-layered. However, the responses to these issues have been more than uneven. On the one hand, following the Supreme Court’s concern about the discolouration of the Taj, the culture ministry immediately announced its intention to set up a committee to debate the original colour of the monument.

On the other hand, there seems little evidence of a concerted attempt to analyse and correlate the arguments that have been advanced over the years to explain the discolouration of the marble or examine the other serious problems affecting the Taj. The explanations for the discolouration of the marble have shifted somewhat linearly over the years – in the 1980s the focus was on emissions from the Mathura Refinery, coal-based industries and thermal plants; in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the spotlight was on the pollution caused by small-scale industrial units in Agra and Firozabad; in the mid to late 1990s, attention shifted to emissions from diesel generators and vehicular pollution, followed by the degradation of the Yamuna, and the more recent explanation of dust and carbon particles.

Scaffolding around one of the minarets of the Taj Mahal. Credit: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

What are we to make of all these explorations? Do they indicate ad-hoc initiatives or a well-thought-out trajectory of attempting to neutralise one set of pollutants and at the same time being alive to the possibility of ever new variables triggered in the wake of the ongoing urban explosion? Some quarters have even questioned whether all the orders/directives issued by the Supreme Court for the protection of the monument have been duly implemented or not.

In the meantime, new debates have arisen. For instance, the loss of employment and displacement caused by the shifting out of industries has fuelled an issue of ‘man versus monument’ – some organisations and activists have asked if it was prudent to displace people without knowing for sure that pollution caused by those industries was the real cause of discolouration. Meanwhile, some sections of business interests and people affected by displacement have issued a call, Taj Hatao, Agra Bachao (remove the Taj, save Agra).

On the other hand, the ASI’s attempt to clean the monument, earlier with an ammonia-based chemical solution and distilled water, and chemical coatings, and later with repeated mud packs (using Bentonite clay or Fuller’s earth), has met with its share of criticism. Critics have argued that while the repeated cleaning of the monument takes away its shine, the scaffoldings erected to place mud packs on the marble runs the risk of causing structural damage. In fact, in an earlier study (1987), the National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property, Lucknow, held an acrylic coating applied as a preservative by the ASI to be partly responsible for the marble’s discolouration.

Close-up of the scaffolding around one of the minarets of the Taj. Credit: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Most would agree that the problems affecting the Taj require interventions on multiple fronts – monument conservation; addressing the issue of a polluted Yamuna or industrial and vehicular pollution; planning for sewage treatment; creating a green cover; studying urban planning and land use patterns, the tourist traffic and the public water supply. This, in turn, requires multiple skills and levels of expertise.

There have been many actors, departments and ministries working on issues connected with the Taj – sometimes independently and sometimes within the same authority as in the case of the Taj Trapezium Zone Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority. The TTZ case is very illuminating: while the TTZ was formed in 1982, the Authority was created only in 1999, beginning with eight members which went up to 18 in 2015. The composition of the Authority was impressive, boasting members from civil administration, the ASI, Central and State Pollution Control Boards, Agra Development Authority, the ministries of environment and forest, and petroleum and natural gas. There was just one problem – the Authority had no administrative set-up and mechanism, budget or support staff to implement its decisions.

This brings us to a fundamental question. Why does the Taj continue to be in such a sorry condition despite manifold efforts by different actors, departments and ministries? In 2015, this question bothered the Parliamentary Standing Committee exploring the problems affecting the Taj as well. In fact, experts are of the view that the absence of a long-term action plan with clearly-defined responsibilities and accountability for various participant actors is the crux of the problem. A nodal agency to spearhead and coordinate a multi-pronged intervention over a period of time, with clear powers and responsibilities, resources, mandate and accountability is certainly the need of the hour. Also, an agency which can clearly delineate potential threats to the monument; draw up a long-term action plan; assign specific roles and responsibilities; and periodically review the progress through ‘state of the monument’ reports, sourcing international expertise if required.

The critical question is this: who shall comprise that nodal agency – an agency which is able to see the importance of a holistic, sustainable and long-term approach to managing heritage rather than knocking at the doors of a burdened Supreme Court every time a similar issue crops up. To reduce a monumental marvel to a problem of monumental proportions – is that the only choice at hand?

Shashank Shekhar Sinha taught history in undergraduate colleges at the University of Delhi. He does independent research on tribes, gender, violence, culture and heritage.