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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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The Taj site was located along a sharp bend in the Yamuna, which slowed the movement of the water and also reduced the possibility of erosion along the riverbank. The water, moreover, provided a glistening mirror to reflect light from the marble, which changes color and tone depending on the hour, day and season. “Marble is of crystalline composition, allowing light to enter rather deeply before it is reflected,” says Koch. “It responds very strongly to different atmospheric conditions, which gives it a spiritual quality.” Across the river, where we had earlier tried to find a boat, is the Mahtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden). Today the area is a restored botanical garden, but it was once part of the Taj’s overall design, a place to view the mausoleum by the light of the moon and stars.

Shah Jahan employed top architects and builders, as well as thousands of other workers—stone carvers and bricklayers, calligraphers and masters of gemstone inlay. Lapis lazuli came from Afghanistan, jade from China, coral from Arabia and rubies from Sri Lanka. Traders brought turquoise by yak across the mountains from Tibet. (The most precious stones had been looted long ago, says Preston.) Ox-drawn carts trekked roughly 200 miles to Rajasthan where the Makrana quarries were celebrated for their milky white marble (and still are). Laborers constructed scaffolding and used a complex system of ropes and pulleys to haul giant stone slabs to the uppermost reaches of the domes and minarets. The 144-foot-high main dome, constructed of brick masonry covered in white marble, weighs 12,000 tons, according to one estimate. The Taj was also the most ambitious inscription project ever undertaken, depicting more than two dozen quotations from the Koran on the Great Gate, mosque and mausoleum.

I had visited the Taj Mahal as a tourist with my family in 2008, and when I read of renewed concerns about the deterioration of the monument, I wanted to return and take a closer look.

Unable to cross the river by boat, I went to the Taj complex in the conventional manner: on foot, and then in a bicycle rickshaw. Motor vehicles are not allowed within 1,640 feet of the complex without government approval; the ban was imposed to reduce the air pollution at the site. I bought my $16.75 ticket at a government office near the edge of the no-vehicle zone, next to a handicraft village where rickshaw drivers wait for work. Riding in the shade in a cart propelled by a human being exposed to blazing sun felt awkward and exploitative, but environmentalists promote this form of transport as nonpolluting. For their part, rickshaw drivers seem glad for the work.

At the end of the ride, I waited in a ten-minute ticket-holders line at the East Gate, where everyone endures a polite security check. After a guard searched my backpack, I walked with other tourists—mostly Indian—into the Jilaukhana, or forecourt. Here, in the days of Shah Jahan, visitors would dismount from their horses or elephants. Delegations would gather and compose themselves before passing through the Great Gate to the gardens and the mausoleum. Even now, a visitor experiences a spiritual progression from the mundane world of the city to the more spacious and serene area of the forecourt and, finally, through the Great Gate to the heavenly abode of the riverfront gardens and mausoleum.

The Great Gate is covered with red sandstone and marble, and features flowery inlay work. It has an imposing, fortress-like quality—an architectural sentry guarding the more delicate structure within. The enormous entranceway is bordered by Koranic script, a passage from Sura 89, which beckons the charitable and faithful to enter Paradise. Visitors stream through a large room, an irregular octagon with alcoves and side rooms, from where they catch their first view of the white-marble mausoleum and its four soaring minarets nearly 1,000 feet ahead.

The mausoleum sits atop a raised platform in the distance, at the end of a central water channel that bisects the gardens and serves as a reflecting pool. This canal, and another that crosses on an east-west axis, meet at a central reservoir, slightly raised. They are designed to represent the four rivers of Paradise. Once, the canals irrigated the gardens, which were lusher than they are today. Mughal architects constructed an intricate system of aqueducts, storage tanks and underground channels to draw water from the Yamuna River. But now the gardens are watered from tube wells.

To further mimic the beauty of Paradise, Shah Jahan planted flowers and fruit trees, which encouraged butterflies to flit about. Some historians say the trees were grown in earth that was originally below the pathways—perhaps as much as five feet down, allowing visitors to pluck fruit as they strolled the grounds. By the time Britain assumed rule over Agra in 1803, the Taj complex was dilapidated and the gardens were overgrown. The British cut down many of the trees and changed the landscaping to resemble the bare lawns of an English manor. Visitors today often sit on the grass.


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