Admirer to the rescue as marble cancer ravages India's monument to love

THE Taj Mahal is a short but harrowing ride down the Grand Trunk Road from the Indian capital, but a Delhi lawyer, M C Mehta, had only once glimpsed the Moghul monument before he began a crusade through the courts to save it.

One of the world's man-made wonders - which for nearly 350 years has survived wars, earthquakes and a mad scheme to sell off slabs of it for English garden follies - has now fallen prey to acid rain. Pollution from 1,500 factories and an oil refinery has given the Taj Mahal what scientists call 'marble cancer'.

Once as white and ethereal as a cloud, the Taj Mahal is now stained yellow like a cigarette smoker's teeth. The pearl-white marble, quarried from Rajasthan, is now blotched, dull and flaking. The exquisite intaglio inlay, crafted by goldsmiths and jewellers, is corroded and gouged-out by souvenir-hunters.

Enter Mr Mehta, a grey-bearded man who bristles with energy. His law office is cramped with books, and his pet Dachshund moves about the carpet like a Hoover. On his desk sits a cheap little replica of the Taj Mahal, the kind that sell for a few rupees in tourist shops all over India.

Every Friday for the last 10 years, Mr Mehta has donned his advocate's robes and starched white collar and gone off to do battle at the Supreme Court on behalf of the Taj Mahal. He is trying to convince the Supreme Court to either move or shut down the many iron foundries, glass and car- parts factories and a petroleum refinery which ring the Moghul tomb in sulphurous smoke.

He is an eloquent speaker, but when asked to describe the Taj Mahal, Mr Mehta begins to reply: 'It's like I am dreaming this monument. It's so beautiful it's almost not real . . . I can't explain its beauty.' Frustrated, he gave up and produced a photocopied sheet of quotes from famous visitors to the Taj Mahal, such as King Edward, Edward Lear and Eleanor Roosevelt. Apparently, the lovelorn Princess Diana made no memorable utterances when she viewed the Taj Mahal alone before her break-up with Prince Charles.

The most succinct remark in Mr Mehta's collection comes from Shah Jehan, the emperor who ordered the mausoleum to be built for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 delivering her 14th child: 'The builder could not have been of this earth, for it is evident that the design was given to him by heaven.' Mumtaz, rare for those days, would accompany her husband on military campaigns and advise him on tricky state affairs. Shah Jahan grieved for two full years after his wife's death, wearing drab clothes and forsaking music.

Not only was Shah Jahan a romantic, he was also an able architect who interested himself in every detail of the 22-year building project, which required more than 20,000 workers. It is said that the emperor was so pleased with the masterpiece that he had the chief mason's hand chopped off so he could never duplicate it.

To appreciate the enormity of Mr Mehta's task in trying to save the Taj Mahal - and his tenacity - it is worth mentioning that India's Supreme Court is swamped with more than 150,000 pending cases. Still, Mr Mehta, with help from P N Bhagwati, a former chief justice, managed to persuade the slow-moving Supreme Court in 1991 to close down 212 factories in Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, and in nearby Firozabad. At his prodding, the Supreme Court also ordered the Environment Ministry to plant 36,000 trees, making a green belt around the Taj Mahal.

'India has fine environmental laws, but on paper only,' Mr Mehta said. 'The government has no priority in saving the Taj Mahal. Some factories have closed down but many more have opened up, illegally.' He is circulating a petition world-wide, trying to obtain a million signatures, which he hopes will shame the Indian government into closing down the industries menacing the monument.

Mr Mehta and many Indian ecologists are pushing for the creation of a 'trapezium', an area covering more than 6,000 square miles in which all heavy, polluting industry would be banned. This environmental swathe would stretch from Agra all the way to Rajasthan, encompassing Mathura and Vrindavan, two holy Hindu sites, and the Bharatpur bird sanctuary.

Opponents claim the shutting down of brick kilns, iron foundries and the Mathura petroleum refinery would leave over 100,000 workers unemployed. Mr Mehta replies that the central and state governments should relocate the industries elsewhere if they want to save the Taj Mahal. 'If stone can get cancer, imagine how susceptible humans are to the pollution,' he said. Emissions of sulphur dioxide around the Taj Mahal are twice the permissible levels. The refinery dumps 1,000 kilos of noxious sulphur dioxide into the air every hour.

Warnings were sounded as far back as 1984, when a joint study carried out by Indian and American scientists concluded that 'a yellow pallor pervades the entire monument. At places the yellow hue is magnified by ugly black and brown spots.' The worst damage is inside the crypt, where the tombs of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal lie side-by-side encrusted with semi-precious stones. Many of the Taj Mahal's 25,000 daily tourists rub their grimy hands over the inlaid flowers inside the tomb, speeding the growth of a fungus which blackens the marble.

The cash-poor Archaeological Survey of India only has a annual budget of pounds 20.5m for the upkeep and repair of over 3,000 monuments across India. Of that, only pounds 41,000 is spent on the Taj Mahal, India's best known monument. 'They have unskilled labourers trying to scrub the marble clean with a toothbrush,' snorted Mr Mehta. 'It's just not enough.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable