In India, the Taj Mahal Is Suffering From Environmental Pollution

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From the nearby Rajasthan Desert, yellow sands are slowly suffocating the life out of the most exquisite building in India. Arguably one of the more beautiful buildings on Earth, the Taj Mahal is suffering sadly from environmental pollution.

This famous “monument to love” gives awe-inspiring testimony to the incredible skills of early Muslim architects, but bears shameful witness to the neglect of modern man. Increased traffic congestion, illegal mining, dusty river beds choked dry due to trash and debris, and hot winds blowing sandstorms in from the desert are all contributing to the environmental disaster befalling the Taj Mahal.

“The Jewel of Muslim Art in India”

Built during the 17th century, the Taj Mahal was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The tomb of his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is enclosed within this famous palace, under the stunningly beautiful center dome. Fine white marble, jasper, jade, lapis lazuli, and crystals were used in the construction, which creates a fascinating, multicultural Islamic blend of architectural design from India, Persia, and Turkey.

Located in western Uttar Pradesh, India, the Taj Mahal complex received UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1983. It is recognized by UNESCO as “the jewel of Muslim art in India, and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage.” Classic Islamic-style landscaping adorns the view, and lovely gardens are thankfully still meticulously maintained.

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The stunning white-domed mausoleum is the most famous structure on the site, but there are additional buildings within the complex, notably other tombs and the Islamic mosque. On fridays, entrance to the grounds is closed to all except Muslims for the congregational prayer that has been held weekly in the mosque ever since its completion in 1653.

12 Million Carbon Footprints Annually

Last year, six million tourists to India visited the Taj Mahal. That’s 12 million carbon footprints. And with the increase in tourists has come a similar increase in vehicles to the area. The government of India has improved the national highway system, as well, creating a further increase in traffic and subsequent air pollution.

Illegal mining in the Aravali mountain ranges of India have left gaping holes in the Earth. Scientific studies have found the level of suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the region is often three, and sometimes five times, higher than the maximum standard for safety.

Particle matter blows in on the hot wind and is essentially sand-blasting the once-pristine face of the Taj. Sandy particles rub against the walls, causing pock marks and rough, worn surfaces. All heavy industry in the nearest town of Agra was relocated in the early 1990s to prevent discoloration of the white marble. However, this effort has not been effective in erasing the evidence of reckless human behavior.

A Welcome Purification for the Friday Prayer

Thankfully, periodic treatment with Fuller’s earth is helping to restore the brilliant white shine to the marble. Also, every Friday morning, when the mausoleum is closed to tourists, the entire marble surface of the Taj is washed with soap and water. Fresh and clean, like the Muslims arriving for the congregational prayer, the Taj Mahal faces the Quibla (direction) of Meccah with the multitudes. Sometimes numbering more than 50,000, they stand in straight lines and proclaim the Glory of God.

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But, unfortunately, Friday prayers come to an end, and the breath of fresh air turns stale once again. Acid rain from a nearby oil refinery has raised renewed alarms, and pleas for help from the government of India. As if all this wasn’t enough, cracks appeared in parts of the famous tomb in 2010. It is believed that the foundation of the tomb may be unstable, due to the disappearance of groundwater.

Studies indicate the groundwater level in the Yamuna River basin is falling at a rate of around 5 feet a year. In 2011 a report indicated that the tomb could collapse within five years, and even now the minarets surrounding the monument are showing signs of tilting.

For the present, efforts to mitigate the damages are focusing on air pollution and crowd control. Strict emissions standards have been set for a 4,000 sq. mile area around the Taj Mahal complex, and tourists must now either walk from satellite parking lots, or wait for an electric bus to reach the entrance.

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Vehicles once delivering pollution with their passengers are no longer allowed near the complex, and a new visitor center is being located in the northern courtyards, spreading the crowd of tourists more evenly on the monument grounds.

A Sorrowful Environment Can Both Create and Destroy

The thought that a sorrowful environment may destroy this glorious beauty brings a bittersweet realization. This incredible monument to love reveals a bewildering mystery in the ways of our Creator, for it was a sorrowful environment which initiated the Taj Mahal’s creation.

In 1631, Emperor Shah Jahan’s third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to their 14th child. Stricken with grief, the emperor commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for the Persian princess’ tomb.

Chronicles from the court of Shah Jahan depict his love for his late wife, and illustrate his heavy grief at her passing. It is recorded that Emperor Shah Jahan himself inscribed upon the Taj these words:

Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the Creator’s glory.

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Certainly this monumental edifice displays the Creator’s glory. Its awesome architecture, perfect symmetry, meticulous landscape — they all seem to sing, and encourage us to join in, singing in unison to God about His Glory. In another mysterious paradox, throughout the grounds of the Taj Mahal complex, passages from the Qur’an are inscribed in beautiful, flowing calligraphy. Words of revelation, provided by God, to teach us about His Glory. Among the inscriptions, I found this passage, and recognize the words to the song I hear emanating from the Taj Mahal:

He is Allah, the One, the Irresistible.
He created the heavens and the earth in true (proportions)
He makes the night overlap the day,
and the day overlap the night
He has subjected the sun and the moon (to His law)
each one follows a course for a time appointed.
Is not He the Exalted in Power―
He Who Forgives again and again?
[Quran 39:4-5]

I hope and pray He forgives us for the damage we have done to His creation, and guides us to restore its original beauty.

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About the Author

Aisha Abdelhamid (Birth-name Kathleen Vail) is a freelance lifestyle and environmental science writer currently living in Vancouver, BC. Her interests include environmental conservation, climate science, renewable energy, faith-based environmental activism, sustainable economics, corporate social responsibility, creative lifestyles, and healthy living.