Bug Poop Is Turning the Taj Mahal Green

To make matters worse, constant cleaning is damaging the monument’s delicate marble

taj mahal
Yann (talk) via Wikimedia Commons

Over the centuries, the Taj Mahal has faced all sorts of threats, from yellowing caused by air pollution to wearing of its marble facade from countless tourists touching the walls and tromping through the domed building. Recently, the structure has come under attack from a new enemy: swarms of flies breeding in a nearby river, whose feces are staining the white marble green.

Just a short distance away from the Taj Mahal is the Yamuna River, one of the longest and largest tributaries of the Ganges. The Yamuna is one of the most polluted waterways in India, filled with chemical waste from factories, raw sewage, and heaps of garbage drifting in its currents, NPR’s Julie McCarthy reports. While residents alongside the river have had to deal with the stench and dangerous toxins for years, the river has started to cause serious problems for conservators at the Taj Mahal who are waging a losing battle against an insect species that breeds near the Yamuna.

“This is like a fungus, growing onto the walls. When they see this kind of thing they say 'Taj is getting dirty!' The dirtiness is increasing, that kind of green fungus is increasing day by day,” Shamshuddin Khan, a tour guide at the Taj Mahal, tells James Bennett for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Normally, the flying insects are eaten by fish living in the river, but a combination of water pollution and drought has killed off many of the animals that once lived in the now-stagnant water. Meanwhile, algal blooms and ash from a crematorium that is dumped into the Yamuna have provided the bugs with plenty of food, leading to massive swarms buzzing around region, Katie Mettler reports for the Washington Post. When they pass over the Taj Mahal, their chlorophyll-stained poop imparts its color to the domed monument.

I don't think this will cause damage to the stone," Girish Maheshvri, an entomologist at St John's College, tells Asian News International (ANI). "The deposit on the Taj is water soluble. We are trying to clean it with water.”

The site draws millions of tourists to the region every year, and figuring out how to keep that flow of visitors steady is a major concern for local leaders, Banerjee reports. But while the poop itself may not degrade the white marble that covers the Taj Mahal, scrubbing the green-stained feces  off the walls poses a serious problem for conservators, as they run the risk damaging the delicate structure.

"A series of marble panels depicting plant motifs on the walls or reflective tiles used in this part of the monument are becoming disfigured," Bhuvan Vikram, a conservator with the Archaeological Survey of India, which is responsible for maintaining the Taj Mahal, tells Biswajeet Banerjee for the Associated Press.

Rising concerns about the Taj Mahal’s upkeep and how the disfigured marble might harm tourism at the site have led officials to begin looking into ways to get rid of the insects’ breeding pools, but so far no one has been able to come up with a good solution. Experts say that stopping the insects at their source is the best way to deal with the problem, Mettler reports. Hopefully a solution can be found before the Taj Mahal is damaged much more.

“Cleaning the Taj Mahal with water will not solve the problem,” Maheshvri tells ANI. “We know where and how these insects grow, so if we solve the problem at the basic level, we can stop them from growing in numbers and there will be no marks on the Taj.”

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