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How to Save the Taj Mahal?

A debate rages over preserving the awe-inspiring, 350-year-old monument that now shows signs of distress from pollution and shoddy repairs

The Taj backs up against the once-vibrant Yamuna River, now often dried to the point where locals can walk in the riverbed. (Alex Masi)
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And the number of visitors is growing. Rajiv Tiwari, president of the Federation of Travel Associations in Agra, tells me that between March 2010 and March 2011, the number of people touring sites in the city jumped from an estimated 3.8 million to nearly five million.

The main concern, however, is the Yamuna River. Some of the activists I met in Agra cited arguments made by R. Nath, who has written dozens of books on Mughal history and architecture. Nath believes that the river water is essential to maintaining the monument’s massive foundation, which is built on a complex system of wells, arches—and, according to Nath—spoked wheels made of sal wood. Nath and some activists worry the groundwater levels beneath the monument are falling—partly the result of a barrier that was constructed upstream to augment public water supplies—and they fear the wood may disintegrate if it isn’t kept moist. Nath also believes the Yamuna River itself is part of a complicated engineering feat that provides thrust from different angles as the water wends its way behind the mausoleum. But, due to the lower water level, the Yamuna now dries up for months at a time. Without that stabilizing counterforce of flowing water, the Taj “has a natural tendency to slide or sink into the river,” Nath says.

A detailed survey of the Taj was carried out in the 1940s during British rule in India, showing that the marble platform beneath the mausoleum was more than an inch lower on the northern side, near the river, than on the south. Cracks were apparent in the structure, and minarets were slightly out of plumb. The implication of the study is disputed: some maintain that the monument was always a tad askew, and perhaps the minarets were tilted slightly to make sure they never fell onto the mausoleum. Nath argues that the Mughals were perfectionists, and that a slow shifting has taken place. A 1987 study by the Rome-based International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property concluded there was no evidence of structural distress or foundation failure, but said there was “remarkably little information about the foundations and the nature of the subsoil.” The report advised it would be “prudent to make a full geotechnical survey” and “highly advisable” to drill several deep boreholes to examine beneath the complex. A Unesco report in 2002 praised the upkeep of the monument, but repeated that a geotechnical survey “would be justified.”

When I asked ASI officials about the foundation, they said it was fine. “Geotechnical and structural investigations have been conducted by the Central Building Research Institute,” ASI director Gautam Sengupta told me in an e-mail. “It has been found...that [the] foundation and superstructure of [the] Taj Mahal are stable.” ASI officials, however, declined to answer several queries about whether deep boreholes had been drilled.

When Mehta visits the city these days, he keeps a low profile. He has several new petitions for action before the Supreme Court—in particular, he wants the government to restore and protect the Yamuna River and ensure that new construction in Agra is in harmony with the style and feel of old India. He shrugs off the anger directed at him, taking it as a sign of success. “I have so many people who consider me their enemy,” he says. “But I have no enemies. I’m not against anybody.”

What would Shah Jahan make of it all? Dixit believes he would be saddened by the state of the river, “but he’d also be happy to see the crowds.” Shah Jahan might even be philosophical about the slow deterioration. He had designed the monument to endure beyond the end of the world, yet the first report on record of damage and leaks came in 1652. The emperor was certainly familiar with the impermanence of things. When his beloved Mumtaz Mahal died, a court historian wrote:

“Alas! This transitory world is unstable, and the rose of its comfort is embedded in a field of thorns. In the dustbin of the world, no breeze blows which does not raise the dust of anguish; and in the assembly of the world, no one happily occupies a seat who does not vacate it full of sorrow.”

If the symbolic power of the Taj can be harnessed to fight for a cleaner river, cleaner air and better living conditions, all the better. But most of the Taj Mahal’s flaws don’t detract from the overall effect of the monument. In some ways, the yellowing and pocking add to its beauty, just as flaws in a handmade Oriental carpet enhance its aesthetic power, or the patina on an antique piece of furniture is more valued, even with its scratches and scars, than a gleaming restoration job. Standing before the Taj Mahal, it’s comforting to know that it is not, in fact, of another world. It is very much part of this ephemeral, unpredictable one we inhabit—a singular masterpiece that will likely be around for many years or even lifetimes to come, but which, despite our best efforts, cannot last forever.


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