In the early 1990s, the Supreme Court of India announced a series of measures to protect the Taj Mahal from pollution. Now, India’s most famous tourist attraction is again under threat as the dazzling white marble is becoming increasingly discoloured.
The mausoleum is located in the city of Agra, 195 kilometres south of Delhi in the north of the country. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their fourteenth child.
Labour, Plant, Materials, & Elephants…
Construction began in 1632 and around 20,000 workers were involved in the project. The mausoleum was completed in 1648 with the remaining buildings and gardens completed around 1653. The tomb is surmounted by a 115-foot high marble dome, the site’s best-known feature. Minarets, which are each about 130 feet tall, are placed at each corner and emphasise the symmetry of the whole building. The minarets are built outside the plinth and are angled slightly away from the tomb so that, should they fall, they will not damage the main building.
The main construction material is a translucent white marble, which came from Makrana, Rajasthan. Additional materials came from Punjab, China, Tibet, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Arabia. Some 1,000 elephants were used to transport the building materials from all over India and Asia.
The Taj Mahal became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and attracts around 20,000 visitors every day. However, its popularity is threatened by the pollution that is gradually discolouring the white marble. Much of the problem is due to air pollution caused by petrol fumes and illegal building works in the area. In 1998, the Supreme Court of India ordered a number of new measures to protect the building. Since then, an estimated £90 million has been spent to restore the monument.
Measures included laying a natural gas pipeline to supply clean fuel to local industries, reducing pollution at the nearby Mathura refinery and replacing diesel-powered vehicles with those run on compressed natural gas. There was also an intention to reduce the density of population around the Taj Mahal.
The measures did have some success, with levels of nitrogen oxide and other gaseous pollutants falling. However, since 2002, levels have been on the rise again and ‘suspended particulate matter’ has shown high levels. US President Bill Clinton used a visit to the Taj Mahal in 2000 to highlight the dangers of pollution but rather spoilt the effect by riding to the monument in his normal limousine while other vehicles were electric powered.
A report by the National Environment Engineering Research Institute in 2010 has stated that most conservation schemes have failed. Part of the problem is the mausoleum’s location close to Agra. Despite attempts to reduce population density, numbers have increased by 350,000, leading to more vehicles and piles of waste around the monument. Underground water levels have fallen due to increased extraction, with the water being contaminated by industrial effluent.
Agra to Continue to Grow…
More houses, hotels and commercial properties have been built on green belt land around the monument. Agra’s power shortages result in thousands of diesel generators operating, which all increase the general level of pollution. The city has become increasingly polluted, adding to pressure on the Taj Mahal. All 19,000 saplings planted in the Taj Nature Walk have died while few of the 5,000 trees planted for Pakistan President Musharraf’s visit have survived.
Many of the small industries around Agra clog the drains with waste and the city’s slums house around 500,000 people. The nearby Yamuna River, which flows past the Taj Mahal, is increasingly polluted. According to World Health Organisation guidelines, a city of Agra’s size should have at least 7,500 sanitation workers but only 2,500 are in place.
The recent Commonwealth Games in Delhi boosted efforts to clean up Agra, with athletes and officials expected to visit. However, without a major change of attitudes, India’s most famous monument is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success. The Taj brings crowds and economic benefits but is suffering from the negatives that go alongside this.