The Taj Mahal Effect

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Environmental problems come to light in many different ways; the plight of sea turtles or coral reefs might highlight the dangers of something we’re putting into the water, for instance. Almost as attention-getting as animals in trouble, though, is an iconic building in danger from its environment. The Taj Mahal is one of those buildings.

The monument in Agra, India, built as a mausoleum by Shah Jahan after the death of his wife in 1631, is one of the most recognizable buildings—and most romanticized tourist destinations—in the world. It’s suffering from several different problems, but most of them are related to the fate of the Yamuna River. A hydroelectric dam upstream of the monument, built to supply power to New Delhi, India’s capital, has left just a trickle of water in the riverbed 110 miles downstream in Agra. The remaining water is polluted with trash and untreated sewage. It experiences algae blooms, and the alga provides a haven for insects. (There are also concerns that poorly planned hydroelectric projects along the river might cause flooding in New Delhi, but that’s another story.)

Worsening smog is also turning the Taj Mahal’s white marble exterior yellow. Although coal-powered factories have been banned from the region and gasoline-powered vehicles are no longer allowed near the monument itself, the many cars and other sources of pollution in the growing city of Agra, which has about a million and a half people, are contributing to the problem.

Some of the attempted fixes have been almost as bad as the original problems. Officials have tried packing fuller’s earth—an absorbent clay material similar to that used in cat litter—on the outside of the monument to remove some of the pollutants and bleach the marble, but it’s a temporary solution at best. A dark grime, thought to be left by the insects from the river, is now beginning to coat some parts of the structure. And, as this article notes, “Cracks in the marble have been patched with off-color cement that experts say expands and contracts with the heat, further weakening the stone.”

One guidebook, quoted in the article, says, “Unless your dream Taj Mahal visit involves being photographed standing in front of a mud-caked and be-scaffolded dome, maybe give it until 2019 at the earliest.”

The river’s troubles would exist with or without the monument; we’re talking about the Yamuna River rather than one of the world’s many other polluted or dried-up rivers only because a famous structure was built next to it. Have you had experience with an environmental issue that was made easier—or possibly more difficult—to deal with because of its association with a local landmark, species, or some other connection? EC_bug_web

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