At half past seven on the evening of April 11, a stone lotus came hurtling down from the skies. No one saw the five-foot-tall column hitting the ground and the red sandstone crushing to a fine powder. Those on guard took refuge from the howling winds and watched the Indian Premier League on their phones.
The wind speed that day hit 130 kmph, 52 trees were uprooted, another hundred lost some limbs, and shrubs planted over years were flattened. But across the long walkway, one witness quietly stood ground, seemingly unperturbed by the elements. A structure that has stood thus for over 360 years — the Taj Mahal.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court reprimanded the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) for failing to protect the Taj Mahal and suggested that experts be brought in from abroad to take over restoration efforts.
In the words of the court, “We don’t know whether you (the ASI) have or perhaps don’t have the expertise. Even if you have the expertise, you are not utilising it. Or perhaps you don’t care.” The bench headed by Justice M B Lokur went on to say, “Perhaps we need some expert organisation from outside India unless there is a decision that the Taj has to go…you can get experts from India as well as from outside.”
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 17th-century monument spread over 42 acres is impressive in its scale, architecture and history, in that 35,000-40,000 visitors stop by every day to be awe-struck by its magnificence, in that it brings Rs 5 crore per annum in ticket sales alone to the Government of India’s coffers. In 2014, Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, under whose ministry the ASI functions, had stated in the Rajya Sabha that the Taj Mahal gets 23 per cent share of foreign tourists travelling to India.
Simply put, this is reason enough for tourists, conservationists, heritage enthusiasts, politicians and even the courts to watch it closely.
“Everybody lives off the Taj Mahal in Agra. Everybody — hawker, businessman, lapka (touts), guides, media,” says Superintending Archaeologist Bhuvan Vikram. Vikram holds the top post in the Agra circle of the ASI, making him personally responsible for the health of India’s most formidable monument.
The city of Agra, which was always famous for its Mughal-era architecture, is now infamous for the air it breathes. This year, it ranked eighth on the World Health Organisation’s list of the 15 most polluted cities in the world — 14 on this list are Indian cities — in terms of PM 2.5 concentrations.
“The problem here is airborne,” says Vikram. “We cannot control the environment and how quickly pollutants get deposited on the structure.”
Yet, the Taj stands. What does it take to keep India’s most famous and treasured monument standing? By the ASI’s estimates, Rs 4 crore a year and over 500 workers — 195 ASI staffers, and close to 300 CISF personnel.
4.45 am: Twenty-five-year-old Bhisvanath greets a foreigner. “Good morning, Rs 1,000, please,” he says, smiling through the small grilled window at the ticket counter.
Today, Bhisvanath and Lav Kumar, among 40 young men who operate the ticket counters on the East and West gates, are on the morning shift that starts 45 minutes before sunrise and goes on till 1 pm. Ramesh Kumar, an ASI “multi-tasking staff”, is on duty to oversee their work.
The men at the ticket counters are employed by a private security agency which provides a similar service to five other monuments in Agra.
Bhisvanath makes an entry on his computer, okays a ticket for one and hands it over to the visitor, who walks over to an adjacent window to collect a small bottle of mineral water and a translucent shoe protector, and heads towards the East Gate of the Taj Mahal.
There are two ways to access the Taj. The East Gate sees groups of foreigners and well-to-do domestic tourists getting dropped off in battery-operated vehicles run by the Agra Development Authority. The West Gate sees the ‘masses’, men and women from across the country who walk in long queues, hemmed in by iron barricades, before they step into the Taj compound.
5:15 am: Two men and a woman, all CISF staff, frisk visitors at the East Gate. On this overcast morning, the lines are thin and an older CISF officer sits back casually, near the conveyor belt on which move bags that need to be checked for any of the prohibited items. Eatables, toys, cigarettes, flags and banners, flowers, explosives, knives, guns, crayons, wine, tool kits, books, torch, toffees, helmet, vegetables and “drone cameras” are “strictly not allowed” inside the Taj Mahal.
The CISF unit at the Taj Mahal has 275 men and women who work in two shifts between 5 am and 9 pm. Each shift sees 60-70 personnel manning the gates and controlling the crowd inside the monument.
“The carrying capacity of the Taj is 8,000-10,000 people but over weekends, this shoots up to nearly 40,000. We have to make sure people don’t linger at the mausoleum,” says CISF commandant Brij Bhushan. “Our issue here is manpower, we need more men and at least six X-ray machines.”
Currently, two old X-ray machines are in use and these break down often. “Besides, it is hard for a machine to catch a nicely folded up flag or a small prayer book. The search for that is done manually, which means we need more men. We have put in a formal request with the ASI.”
In January, the ASI proposed a slew of crowd-management measures at the Taj, including fixing Delhi-Metro-like turnstiles at both its gates to clock visitors and fixing a time limit on the amount a visitor’s eyes can take in the monument: three hours.
In 2002, the Supreme Court directed the UP Police to hand over the security of the monument to the CISF. “Before the UP Police left the Taj following the court order, they occupied much of the forecourt and even used it to dry their clothes. They were replaced by the CISF, who also occupied the Taj even raising a flag. Are they serving the nation’s heritage or manning a military outpost?” says Amita Baig, an expert on the Taj.
5.30 am: Bablu Chauhan, a resident of the nearby Taj Ganj basti which is known to house the descendants of the labourers who built the Taj, drags his broom across the forecourt to clear some loose plastic. He is part of a six-member, all-male team of safai karamcharis who start their morning shift just as the sun comes up. There is an equal number that does an afternoon shift. The cleaning of the Taj premises has been handed over to a private contractor who employs daily wagers such as Chauhan, who in turn are supervised by an ASI staffer.
Given the strict rules about what one can bring into the Taj Mahal, the sweepers mostly clear plastic bottles and shoe protectors and dump them into cement dustbins. Ankit Namdev, the ASI in-charge on the Taj campus, does some quick maths: “If there are one lakh visitors, there are more than 25,000 bottles to clear for the day. Depending on the crowd, 30 per cent have water bottles and 60 per cent use shoe protectors.”
The ASI’s Vikram says every Friday, the day the monument takes a weekly off, the ASI’s safai karamcharis do some intensive cleaning work. “On Fridays, we clean every nook and corner of the monument. In some places where we have wooden planks to protect the marble steps, we remove them and clean underneath too,” he says.
However, most conservationists, CISF personnel and daily-wage workers say it’s not every Friday that the Taj gets a thorough scrub; it’s more like every fortnight.
Private security officer Genda Lal points to the layer of mud covering the blue of the fountain floors. “This is because of the frequent aandhi (dust storms) these days. But all this will be cleaned this Friday,” he says.
10 am: Like the East and the West Gate, the entrance to the main monument is divided between “high-value log (people)” and everyone else. On one side, near the steps leading up to the platform and upwards to the mausoleum, stands Amarjeet Singh with his six “Chinese-imported” machines that dispense blue shoe-protectors for people with high-value tickets and VIPs and a couple of red, velvet ones for VVIPs.
After visitors dump the used shoe protectors on their way back from the mausoleum, the large bins are whisked away by safai karamcharis and emptied outside the Taj’s premises, “along with everything else”, says a sweeper.
On the other side of the flight of stairs leading up to the mausoleum are the ASI’s “multi-tasking staff” Kailashi and Hari Singh, who man the shoe racks for the “non-VIPs”. Behind Hari Singh are 108 shelves, each cubicle holding clues about the families who have left their shoes behind — families with little girls in bow slippers, nuclear families, and joint families with shoes stacked up on each other. Today is a lean day and barely 40 shelves are filled.
Singh and Kailashi work on a dynamic roster. For instance, a day earlier, Kailashi had served chai-paani to guests at the ASI office in the Taj complex, and the day before that, collected and stored video cameras till visitors finished their rounds of the monument. “We show up in the morning and check to see what duty we have been assigned,” says Kailashi.
10.15 am: People file through the main mausoleum, instinctively running their hands on the cool marble walls as they walk. A distinct black band runs across this entire stretch, on the outside walls of the mausoleum, on the marble banisters.
“To distance tourists from the walls, we recently put railings,” says Vikram.
Outside, where the wall on the northern flank meets the floor, is a thick green line. Earlier this month in the Supreme Court, petitioner and environment lawyer M C Mehta had passed around photographs of this wall, with the greenish slime on the marble.
Vikram, however, dismisses these photographs. “Those were from 3-4 months ago, all the tourists were wearing sweaters and mufflers,” he says, adding, “The green stuff is insect excreta. It is not coming from inside, but from the Yamuna. It is not a river anymore. It’s sluggish, there are no fish. The river is now a breeding ground for these insects. We can only clean it with plain water, without applying any pressure.”
At the far end, the air monitoring station in the complex runs a ticker informing visitors of the suspended particulate matter – “318.70 mg/m3”, it reads, against a safe limit of 100. Air monitoring began at the Taj Mahal’s complex in the 1970s, after the Mathura refinery came up in 1973. The refinery was on the windward direction of the Taj and there were fears about the impact of its gaseous effluents on the monument.
10:45 am: In the Taj’s courtyard around the mausoleum are six men squinting through the harsh sun as they look up at the large dome. They are hauling 20-foot-long, 25-kg iron rods from the storage room near the mosque. These rods, which will serve as scaffolding on the dome, will rise from the ground up to the domes with the aide of chain pulleys.
Three of the men are wearing fluorescent safety jackets that read ‘ASI Science Wing’. The men, part of the team that will apply a mud pack on to the marble surface to restore the Taj’s old glow, say the “chemists” from the ASI Science Wing, who “sit in an office in Agra city”, come by every day to supervise their work. “They tell us what to do and we do it,” says Maharaj Singh, a daily wage labourer.
“Chemical toh hai mitti ke andar,” says one of the men. “It sucks the dirt, like the bleach you put on your face,” he says, rubbing his cheek.
Vikram insists there are “no chemicals” and that the mud pack is Fuller’s Earth or Multani Mitti and that the domes are the only part of the monument that are yet to be administered the therapy.
“We apply the mixture, leave it for a little while, say about 24 hours, then take it off and rinse with water,” he says, adding, “A daily cleaning of the walls can cause a decay on the marble exterior. So every Friday, when the Taj is shut, we carry out an extensive cleaning of this surface using plain water.”
The ASI’s archeological reviews — records updated on its website of every work done on the Taj from 1953 to 2001 — offer some clues on what the mud pack might contain. The yellowing of the Taj has been happening for years, these documents reveal, and so have the ASI’s efforts to counter it.
The 1976-77 review talks of use of detergents such as teepol B-300, benzene, formalin and other solvents being used on the Taj. Ten years later, the 1986-87 reveals a “mud pack of magnesium trislicate and aluminium silicate” was applied and the original colour of marble was restored.”
A top ASI officer in Delhi vehemently denies the presence of chemicals in the mud pack. “We wouldn’t have gotten away if something like this was done to the Taj,” says the senior official.
While mud packs have been in use at least since 1986-87, Vikram points out that it was only over the last three years that the therapy has been used on the entire monument.
Asked if there has been a scientific study conducted to see the mud pack’s effect, he says, “It is clearly visible (to the eyes).”
NOON: On the way out of the Taj, near the ticket counter at the East Gate, S C Meena, Deputy Superintendent of the ASI’s horticulture department, sits inside his airconditioned office reading out from a list of tree names damaged in the recent storm. As labourers haul huge trunks of trees toppled by aggressive winds, before they are carted away, Meena says he has written a detailed note to the Ministry of Culture asking for funds to repopulate the Taj’s flora. The destruction, he says, was in lakhs of rupees.
“Ashoka, Maulshree, Kesia, Amla… It was one of the worst damages ever… a huge loss for the environment and to the Taj,” he says.
In effect, India’s most famous and treasured monument does not exist in a bubble. It co-exists with the elements — a “dead” Yamuna river, the polluted air that deposits fine particles into its crevices and angry gusts of wind that uprooted these trees.
Like Baig, the Taj expert says, “You cannot think of the Taj and not think of Agra city.” For now, the Taj Mahal stands in the heat, its body and its minarets white, its head — the domes — yellowing.