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Heritage And History

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Taj Mahal: A fading dream

THE Taj Mahal continues to be India's best known icon. You mention India to someone outside the country, and he would at once talk of the Taj, much in the same way that anybody would mention Satyajit Ray in a movie discussion.

The Taj's renown caught on very early. Some of the first European visitors grew ecstatic when they saw this marble dream.

French traveller Francois Bernier, who visited Agra during Aurangazeb's reign in 1670, said that "this piece of work is far more important than the pyramids of Egypt". In 1789, painter Thomas Daniell called the Taj "a spectacle of the highest celebrity". Lord Curzon loved it, spent time and money to repair and beautify the Taj's surroundings, and declared that "if I had never done anything else in India, I have written my name here, and the letters are a living joy". Rabindranath Tagore wanted only this "one teardrop (Taj)" to "glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever".

But, the monument of love that Shah Jahan built for his beloved queen, Mumtaz, has stood for more than three-and-a-half centuries not just amidst glory but also contention and controversy.

For decades in the 1900s, this white tomb was brutally devastated by pollution: a railway marshalling yard with steam engines, an oil refinery, two thermal plants and 2300-odd foundries and glass factories and thousands of vehicles spewed fumes which poisoned the Taj that, some aver, beyond remedy.

However, most of these pollutants have been removed, largely at the insistence and perseverance of a Supreme Court lawyer, M.C. Mehta, who fought a relentless battle to save this symbol.

Yet, the tendency to spoil this magnificence in marble remains like an itch that does not go away. The areas around the Taj still present a picture of decay. Eyesores galore. The city of Agra itself where the Taj is located continues to cry for attention. Schemes for its beautification have remained on paper.

Worse, in 2003, an elaborate plan was made and even executed to an extent by the Uttar Pradesh Government to establish an amusement complex right next to the Taj Mahal. It was only when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) threatened to remove the Taj from the list of "World Heritage Sites" that New Delhi stepped in to save this historic structure from peril.

The story of the 2003 misadventure is one of greed and corruption where the richness of India's heritage was about to be trampled to dust.

And, now there is yet another dispute over the date of Taj's completion. Some historians put it as 1654. But others say that it was 1643 or early 1644. Abdul Hamid Lahori who wrote the Padshahnama and who was Shah Jahan's official chronicler wrote that the Taj was completed 12 years after the first brick was laid, sometime in early 1632, roughly six months after Mumtaz died on June 17, 1631 in Burhanpur. To add to the perplexity, an inscription at the main gate of the Taj says that the edifice was completed in 1648.

However, the Government has begun to celebrate 350 years of the Taj, and modern experts are not amused. M.C. Joshi, former chief of the Archaeological Society of India (ASI), is quoted as having said: "I do not know what system of counting they subscribe to. Set aside the written records of the Mughal period, if the ASI had consulted its own publications, it would have realised that the Taj is older than 350 years".

Ultimately, one would suppose, the date is not important. What is, is the care that the Taj must get. Sadly, it has been suffering. And not surprising. For, India has been most callous about its history and heritage.

Take the case of Hampi, where the ruins of the fascinating Vijayanagar Empire were declared a "World Heritage Site" in 1986. Thirteen years later, two bridges were built within the protected zone, and the UNESCO warned that Hampi could lose its status.

There are thousands of other monuments in India, less privileged than Hampi or the Taj, which though under the ASI, remain in various states of disintegration. Certainly, a cohesive policy to preserve these is necessary. But, before that what is imperative is a change in attitude. It is only when every Indian begins to take pride in his past that our history will cease to be erased.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated October 3 2004)

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