Can India’s Supreme Court save the world famous Taj Mahal?

S. N. M. Abdi

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One of India’s most revered institutions – the Supreme Court – is proving to be an unflinching friend of the nation’s most well-known monument – the Taj Mahal, often described as one of the seven wonders of the world for its stunning marble beauty.

“Do you want to destroy the world famous Taj Mahal?”, two justices of the apex court last week snapped at the government lawyer praying for clearance to chop down 400 trees to lay additional railway tracks between Mathura and Delhi.

Mathura is near Agra in northern India where Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in 1631 in memory of his wife Mumatz Mahal.

The monument is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the country’s biggest tourist attraction. But it faces a grave threat from air and water pollution spurring environmentalists like Magsaysay Award winner M.C. Mehta to fight prolonged courtroom battles to save it from ruin.

Aghast at the proposal

Supreme Court judges Madan B. Lokur and Deepak Gupta were aghast at the proposal to fell so many trees for streamlining the movement of passenger and goods trains as deforestation is bound to spike pollution levels responsible for the mausoleum’s famous white marble turning yellow.

Trees have traditionally been a shield for the Taj protecting it from vicious dust storms. But the cutting down of trees for roads, railways and other engines of growth have increasingly exposed the monument to a smokescreen of dust taking a toll of its shine.

Factories, traffic and rising human population are proving to be the enemy of the Taj. Vehicles are no longer allowed within 500 meters but nitrogen oxide and particulates have reached such high levels that many campaigners are throwing up their hands in despair.

Not too long ago, former US President Bill Clinton who is a great advocate for preserving the Taj at any cost, remarked that “pollution is doing what 350 years of wars, invasions and natural disasters have failed to do and begun to mar the magnificent walls of the Taj Mahal”.

The dome and minarets of the iconic monument now await a mud-pack makeover. Since 1994, Multani Matti (Fuller’s earth) has been applied on parts of the Taj but now the Archaeological Survey of India, which has been given the difficult job of preserving it, has zeroed in on mud-pack therapy involving scaffolding which would mar its beauty temporarily to restore its original glory.

The Taj today faces a grave new challenge from an unlikely quarter – Yogi Adityanath. The Hindu hardliner is one of the country’s most powerful politicians and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh province where the Taj is located. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Adityanath regard Mughal kings like Shah Jahan, who built the monument, as Muslim “invaders” who “enslaved” Hindus.

Adityanath’s blunt remarks
that the Taj Mahal “doesn’t reflect India’s culture or heritage” led to an uproar but he is unfazed. In his first budget for Uttar Pradesh, he generously allocated funds for the development of Ayodhya, Varanasi, Mathura and Chitrakoot which have religious significance for Hindus. But he bypassed Agra, known the world over for the Taj.

The Supreme Court has taken a principled stand. But will their lordships be able to save the embattled Taj from pollution and politicians?