When Lady Diana visited the Taj Mahal in 1992, newspapers in the UK carried the news headlined: ‘Wish you were here’. That Prince Charles didn’t accompany her did not take away from the “healing experience” of that visit. That she did not have to jostle or stand in serpentine queques, could have also aided the love story. On Tuesday, when the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) announced it would limit visits to India’s most iconic monument to a “maximum of three to four hours”, it could be called the eighth wonder of the world. Why hasn’t it happened already, one wonders?
Said to have over seven-eight million visitors a year, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is a vision in marble. Its salute to classic symmetry, the gentle detailing in pietra dura inlay, the way the domes swell out and the arches crouch in, the red pathways and green lawns that chanel your walk are all geared towards making your visit memorable. But then who can deny that all that comes at a price. Not just Rs 50, if you’re an Indian or Rs 1,000 if you’re a foreign tourist but the need for well-oiled elbows.
“A visit to the Taj is often angst ridden, especially when one is with foreign tourists. Inside the mausoleum, which is everyone’s final destination, becomes claustrophic with guards whistling, and people shouting. It takes away from the experience of the space. The world over crowds are micro managed to the last minute. It’s almost like you have an appointment with the monument itself, with strict time slots for each visit,” says Aparna Phalnikar, Delhi-based freelance tour guide, who says each of her high-profile foreign tourist has the Taj on their holiday map.
Worries about the crowd at the Taj has more to do with the environment or ecology than the actual monument itself. While Bhuvan Vikrama, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Agra Circle agrees that too much of footfall leads to abrasive effects on the walls and floor of the monument, it’s the pollution that is a cause for concern. “Each building or monument has a threshold. Somewhere it is about the discipline, and the type of activity that needs to be in place. Generally, buildings are designed to take care of the heat and dust. But a monument is in danger if its open to pollution of industrial air or chemical reactions,” says Ahmedabad-based architect Yatin Pandya. Vikrama says the Taj has been receiving multani-mutti baths for over two decades, to maintain its shine.
With crowd management there has to be other strategies in places, says Ratish Nanda, Chief Executive, Aga Khan Trust for Culture, India. “Every significant heritage site requires a visitor management plan. Limiting time at a significant attraction such as the Taj however needs to be coupled with efforts at creating alternate attractions – for which conservation of the attached Mughal era gardens should be urgently looked into,” says Nanda.
So if ASI’s intentions do translate into action, here’s hoping there could be more to see than just the Taj, and the surroundings could be better developed for a holistic experience.
BOX Top 10 sites popular with tourists in 2014 (last updated – in descending order) (Source: ASI)
Domestic Taj Mahal Qutub Minar Red Fort Sun Temple Agra Fort Golconda Fort Charminar Bibi-ka-Maqbara Gol Gumbaz
Foreign Taj Mahal, Agra: 6 lakh Agra Fort Qutub Minar, Delhi Humanyun’s Tomb, Delhi Fathepur Sikri Red Fort Sarnath Akbar’s Tomb Khajuraho I’timad-ud-Daulah
World’s Most Visited Monuments in descending order (Source: Trip Advisor)
Ankor Wat, Cambodia Machu Picchu, Peru Taj Mahal, India Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, UAE La Sagrada Familia, Spain St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City Milan Cathedral Alcatraz, California, USA Cristo Redentor, Brazil Golden Gate Bridge, California, USA