In India, a Jaundiced Pearl

 Taj Mahal
Muslims mark Eid at the Taj Mahal, whose ivory marble is yellowing. ( Getty)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 17, 2007

AGRA, India -- Even the Taj Mahal, India's national beauty and renowned monument to love, needs a deep-cleansing facial every now and then.

Air pollution and, some say, natural aging have given the Taj a slightly yellow tinge, and this week a report released by the Indian Parliament prescribed a $230,000 therapeutic mudpack as the best way to preserve the architectural masterpiece, which towers over the dusty city of Agra like a fairy-tale marble teardrop.

The report said that the yellowing has continued despite government efforts to curb traffic and shut down factories nearby. Pollution, often caused by dust and the burning of fossil fuels, remains at consistently high levels in the area, according to data from the Air Pollution Monitoring Laboratory, which tracks air quality around the famous mausoleum.

Efforts to preserve the Taj nearly two decades ago launched an environmental campaign that has since grown into the so-called Green India movement. Environmentalists in this rapidly industrializing country have tried to address numerous problems, including global warming, auto pollution and widespread dumping of industrial waste in waterways.

More than a decade ago, India's Supreme Court ordered thousands of factories and small, smoke-generating iron foundries and kilns near the Taj to be shut down or moved. Today in Agra, cars and buses are banned near the cultural landmark.

On summer holidays, waves of Indian families in colorful saris and tunics mix into swelling crowds of photo-snapping, sneaker-clad Westerners, bottled water and camcorders in hand. They crowd into horse-drawn carriages and battery-powered buses to reach the monument, which is visited by about 3 million people a year -- a rate of more than 8,000 a day.

"So many good things were done by the government, but there's still so much more to do," said Mahesh C. Mehta, an environmental lawyer in New Delhi who for decades has tried to persuade the courts to protect the mausoleum. "Taj Mahal doesn't just belong to India alone. It's a global treasure. The Indian government is accountable to the world."

Activists say that illegal factories are still springing up near the Taj and that a booming population and seemingly endless construction have contributed to the plumes of black smoke and water shortages that plague the city.

The Taj Mahal was built by more than 20,000 laborers, artisans and stonemasons more than 350 years ago by the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan as a memorial of love to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Up close, the Taj looks slightly ivory in spots, but overall it retains its original milky-white complexion.

The treatment recommended in the report released this week would entail pouring lime-splashed clay onto the building's fine Arabic etchings, slender minarets and intricate flowered inlay to draw out impurities in a multi-step treatment spanning several months.

Trained restoration artists would methodically apply the clay to every inch of the Taj, with the monument kept open during the treatment, said D.K. Burman, joint director of tourism for Agra. A trial facial completed two years ago produced noticeable whitening. The mudpack should be repeated every two to three years to keep the marble's surface clean, Burman said.

"Whenever anyone talks of India, they say, 'Have you seen the most beautiful Taj?' " Burman said. "We are willing to do whatever it takes to preserve her."

In the coming weeks, the Archaeological Survey of India, under the Ministry of Culture, will decide whether it wants to take up the recommendation.

In Agra, 10 percent of the city's desperately poor 1.3 million residents make a living in the hotel industry or as piecemeal hawkers, aggressively chasing down tourists as they walk up to the Taj, begging for work as a tour guide or peddling snow globes, Taj alarm clocks and plastic mini-Tajs.

Small-business owners say that cars and motorized rickshaws are more responsible for the pollution than factories. Others say the Taj gets too much attention in a city with 250 other decrepit and often-ignored historic sites, along with sewage-filled streets and crumbling markets that need government refurbishing.

The Taj itself looks out over the once-beautiful Yamuna River, now the most polluted waterway in India, so dirty that residents must buy their own drinking water.

"Taj is one of the seven wonders of the world, so it's our heritage and is definitely important," said Anil Goyal, president of the National Chamber of Industries and Commerce in Agra. "Yet the government should also pay some importance to the people's livelihood, too."

Special correspondent Indrani Ghosh Nangia contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company