That’s what it takes every year to keep the Taj Mahal standing, says the ASI. But with the Supreme Court recently pulling up the organisation...
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.