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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)

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

When he began his campaign in the 1980s, one of Mehta’s main targets was an oil refinery upwind of the Taj Mahal that spewed sulfur dioxide. Preservationists believed the plant emissions were causing acid rain, which was eating away at the stone of the monument—what Mehta calls “marble cancer.” Mehta petitioned the Supreme Court and argued that the Taj was important both to India’s heritage and as a tourist attraction that contributed more to the economy than an oil refinery. He wanted all polluters, including iron foundries and other small industries in Agra, shut down, moved out or forced to install cleaner technology. In 1996, twelve years after he filed the motion, the court ruled in his favor, and the foundries around Agra were closed, relocated or—as was the case with the refinery—compelled to switch to natural gas.

But for all his successes, Mehta believes there’s much more to be done. Traffic has surged, with more than 800,000 registered vehicles in the city. Government data shows that particulate matter in the air—dust, vehicle exhaust and other suspended particles—is well above prescribed standards. And the Yamuna River arrives in Agra bearing raw sewage from cities upstream.

The river, once such an integral component of the Taj’s beauty, is a mess, to put it mildly. I visited one of the city’s storm drains where it empties at a spot between the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, a vast sandstone-and-marble complex that was once home to Mughal rulers. In addition to the untreated human waste deposited there, the drain belches mounds of litter—heaps of plastic bags, plastic foam, snack wrappers, bottles and empty foil packets that once held herbal mouth freshener. Environmental activists have argued that such garbage dumps produce methane gas that contributes to the yellowing of the Taj’s marble.

When I stepped down to photograph the trash heap, I felt an unnatural sponginess underfoot—the remains of a dead cow. According to Brij, who has reported on the subject for Indian publications, the bodies of children have also been interred here by people too poor to afford even a rudimentary funeral. The dump and ad hoc cemetery within view of the splendor of the Taj is a jarring reminder of the pressures and challenges of modern India. The state of Uttar Pradesh, where Agra is located, had plans in 2003 to develop this area for tourists. The project was called the Taj Corridor. Originally conceived as a nature walk, it was transformed secretly into plans for a shopping mall. The whole project crashed soon after it began amid allegations of wrongdoing and corruption. Sandstone rubble remains strewn across the dump site.

R.K. Dixit, the Asi’s senior official at the Taj, has an office inside the edifice of the Great Gate. He sits under a white domed roof, with a swirling symbol of the sun at its apex. The room has one window, shaded by a honeycomb screen of red sandstone, which offers a direct view of the mausoleum.

I ask him about the Taj’s deterioration. He acknowledges the sad state of the river. But while he agrees that some of the marble is yellowing, he says that’s only natural. The ASI has been taking steps to clean it. Restorers first used chemical agents, including an ammonia solution.They now use a type of sedimentary clay called fuller’s earth. “It takes the dust and dirt from the pores of the marble, and after removing the impurities, [the fuller’s earth] falls down,” says Dixit. Some critics have derided this “spa treatment,” saying that fuller’s earth is a bleaching agent and will ultimately do more harm than good. But it’s used elsewhere, and when I later contact international conservationists to get their opinion, they tell me it’s unlikely to do damage.

There are many in Agra who believe that all the worries about the Taj are exaggerated—that far too much attention is paid to the monument at the expense of other priorities. They say the restrictions imposed upon the city’s several hundred brick kilns, iron foundries and glassworks to reduce air pollution have harmed the local economy. S.M. Khandelwal, a business leader in Agra who opposed Mehta’s legal campaign, has long argued that such businesses were responsible for only a tiny fraction of the fumes emitted in the city, and that the more significant polluters were vehicles and power generators. “I was very angry that everyone was so concerned about the Taj Mahal and not about the [livelihoods of the] people of Agra,” he says.

Even some international experts doubt that air pollution is the prime cause of the discoloring and pitting of the monument’s marble. At least some of the yellow marks on the monument, for instance, are rust stains from iron fixtures that hold the marble slabs in place. Marisa Laurenzi Tabasso, an Italian chemist and conservation scientist, has studied the Taj Mahal on behalf of international organizations and Indian authorities. “Most of the problems with the marble are not from pollution, but from climatic conditions,” she says. These include heat, sunlight and also moisture, which promotes the growth of algae, leading to biological decay of the stone. Laurenzi Tabasso says the main human impact on the monument probably occurs inside the tomb, where the moist breath of thousands of daily visitors—and their oily hands rubbing the walls—has discolored the marble.

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