As the sun starts its descent on the horizon, the young boy scrambles to launch his kite a few more times before it becomes too dark. It’s his favorite toy, and every chance he gets he is on the roof testing his new creations. His parents are struggling and he built all of his own toys. He imagines what the life of the Maharaja must have felt like, and if the emperor’s children also built kites as he diverts his gaze towards the majestic white marble palace only a stone’s throw away.
I am captivated by this surreal scene of images from the past mixed with modern life in the bustling city of Agra. Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal, the greatest tomb of all which was built in the 16th century by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz Mahal tragically died from giving birth to their 14th child. The emperor was so heartbroken that he wanted to honor her memory til the end of time. The construction of the Taj Mahal started the following year. It is said to have taken 21 years to build, sourcing the most talented workers and the finest materials from all over India. Shortly after the completion of the Taj, the emperor was confined to a cell by his own son, where he lived the rest of his days gazing at his creation through the prison bars.
The Taj Mahal is truly one of the most beautiful buildings in the world combining building styles from a variety of cultures with some truly ingenious ideas. It is, for example, believed that the four corner pillars lean slightly outward to prevent them from damaging the main building in case of an earthquake. The white palace has survived many wars and looting from the British. It is a brick structure completely covered in stunning white marble and beautiful inlaid precious stones. This Marble is today deteriorating and becoming discolored from the impacts of pollution.
The iconic “Crown of Palaces” is being attacked from all sides. Extensive studies have been made to determine what causes the damage and deterioration to the building. The conclusions vary depending on who you ask. As is often the case in situations like these, several of the parties are trying to protect their own interest and guide people’s awareness in false directions. The reality is that increasing populations and ever growing pollution issues are to blame.
The Yamuna river, like most rivers in India, is heavily polluted. Runoff from commercial industry and untreated sewage from cities along its banks are the main perpetrators, along with the locals dumping their trash directly into the water. Interestingly enough, dumping the trash in the rivers is a very old tradition in India and in the past it didn’t damage much. The trash used to be all organic and the population used to be a lot smaller. Today, hundreds of millions of people live along the banks of the Indian rivers and a huge part of the trash is plastic, metals and even chemicals. Agra is also a major city (1.5 million people) with massive industries. Most the industries are glass factories and cast iron foundries which release up to a ton of harmful emissions per hour, causing extremely harmful acid rainfall. The acid rain corrodes the metal structures underneath the marble on the Taj, which in return causes the marble to crack. In addition, it also discolors the marble to a point where certain areas have turned completely black. The main enemy to the environment in the area is a massive oil refinery only about four miles from the monument. The oil refinery is one of many trying to meet the ever-increasing demand for power in this massive country. To top it off, there are huge amounts of traffic with many cars and trucks running on illegal, untreated gasoline. It is a battle that seems very hard to win. Some authorities claim that tourism is a main factor in the damage to the building. It is said that sweat from the tourists’ hands damage the marble over time. This is not a proven fact in any way and seems to simply be a ploy to mislead the media.
Not all is lost. The Indian government has had constant pressure from conservationists around the world after it was revealed that the Taj was in peril – pressure which has led to some great victories. The supreme court has closed down hundreds of local industries and ensured that these industries compensated workers appropriately (as much as seven years’ pay to workers laid off from industries which did not relocate). There are also at this point very strict emission laws in effect in the immediate area surrounding the monument. Another great effort comes from a local Hindu priest who for years has fought the authorities and created awareness about the pollution of the River. Ashwini Kumar Mishra has finally succeeded in making the government create a series of lagoons which naturally clean the sewage in the river. This has proven to give great results even though it can be hard to notice in massive bodies of water like the Yamuna River. Similar projects have been effective in cleaning smaller bodies of water across India, and it is certainly important to recognize the smaller victories in order to really focus on the larger.
The sun finally gives up its grasp and the landscape turns dark. The boy’s mother calls him in. I am imagining the family’s hot kitchen with chapatti, dal and curries ready to eat. All I see now is the dark silhouette of the Taj as my thoughts wander to what the future holds for the architectural wonders of the past.
You can read more about the studies done on the pollution effects to the Taj here.