Taj Mahal: the symbolic monument of India threatened by pollution.

The white marble of the Taj Mahal threatened by pollution and insects: the concern of the India government.

The problem of pollution has many different aspects: the consequences of atmospheric pollution are many and various, so much so that it is difficult to draw up a complete list. As is well known, smog has a decidedly negative effect on our health, starting with the problems that it can cause the airways and the cardiovascular system. And everyone knows the dramatic consequences for the environment, from forests to oceans. It is pollution that causes the exceptional atmospheric phenomena that occur ever more frequently, not to mention the medium and long term forecast of climate changes. What’s more, pollution leads to hydrogeological instability and puts hundred of animal species at risk. These are only the main consequences of pollution: every month, new changes are being identified that are the result of emissions caused by humans.

In recent years, for example, it has been realised that pollution can cause major problems for buildings, even more so for historic buildings and monuments, the beauty of which are put at risk by smog. The fine particles in smog certainly threaten all types of construction, causing dark encrustations over time. But the greatest concerns surround the World Heritage Sites, which, in certain cases, react in a particularly extreme way to the action of pollution. This is the case with the Taj Mahal, one of the most famous monuments in India, a symbol of Islamic architecture on the Indian subcontinent. This enormous mausoleum, with its characteristic bright white colour, is gradually losing its splendour, precisely because of the increasing pollution.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal, a mausoleum that is one of the famous “Seven Wonders of the Modern World”, was built between 1632 and 1654. Its name literally means “palace of the crown” and, in many ways, it is similar to the classic headgear of sovereigns, in that it is practically covered with precious and semi-precious stones, embellishing the white marble and the motifs of its decoration.

The construction of the Taj Mahal was begun by the Indian emperor Shah Jahan, who decided to build this huge palace to honour a promise he had made to his deceased wife. A supreme example of Islamic architecture, the Taj Mahal made use of the expertise and mastery of artisans from many different places: in this mausoleum, a masterpiece of world art, there is a little touch of Europe, and also Italy, since the Venetian architect Geronimo Veroneo also took part in its construction.

Five different elements make up this famous architectural complex. There’s the mosque, but also the Great Gate, the garden, the guest house (called “Mihman Khana”) and, finally, the mausoleum itself, where the remains of the emperor lie who commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal.

The mausoleum is 240 feet high and lies above a square plinth on which 4 minarets stand, which help draw the distinctive outline of the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal and atmospheric pollution

Over its long history, this magnificent palace of the city of Agra has had to defend itself against several different threats. One menace came from aerial bombardments during the Second World War, when, in 1942, scaffolding was erected around the Taj Mahal to protect it. The same precaution was taken in later years, during the conflict with Pakistan in the nineteen sixties. Scaffolding is not enough to protect it against today’s threat, however: the enemy, in this case, is pollution.

The fact is that the brilliant white walls of the Taj Mahal are turning green. To be more precise, the marble has turned yellow in some places while, in others, greenish encrustations can been seen, here and there turning a shade of brown. Given this process, which has continued for years, in 2018 India’s Supreme Court asked the central government to take the necessary steps to protect the country’s symbolic monument. There is no doubt that pollution is the culprit. Indeed, the threat had already been identified in the nineteen nineties. So, to safeguard the walls of the Taj Mahal, thousands of factories in the areas surrounding the architectural complex were ordered to close. However, this measure was clearly not enough and, as the years passed between one cleaning operation and the next, the building became increasingly green. To contain this problem, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) presented an air-purification project capable of purifying up to 0.15 million cubic metres of air every 8 hours, within a radius of almost a thousand feet.

However, it would seem that another external factor is threatening the colour of the Taj Mahal’s walls: insects.

The green traces of insects on the Taj Mahal

It isn’t just the fine particles in smog that threaten the Taj Mahal. According to experts, the palace has also be put in danger by pollution from the river that runs alongside the mausoleum, the Yamuna. The sewage from more than 50 different sewers is poured into the watercourse and this high level of pollution has driven away all the fish from the Yamuna, triggering a chain of unfortunate events. The lack of fish has meant that insects, their main prey, have proliferated along the river and now their excrement sullies the walls of the Taj Mahal. Specifically, the culprits are midges called Chironomus Calligraphus.

The most effective solution would be to reduce the pollution of the watercourse, thereby restoring the area’s biodiversity and, in parallel, protecting the moment as a result. The problem is not that simple, however. To restore the whiteness of the Taj Mahal, traditional cleaning methods are used, whereby the walls are covered with smectic clay, a lime-rich substance used for centuries to absorb grease (also used by Indian women as a beauty mask for this purpose). After 24 hours, the clay is removed and the walls are cleaned with distilled water. This operation was carried out in 2014, and before that in 2008 and 2001, but it is only a palliative action in anticipation of a more effective solution to protect the Taj Mahal from the consequences of pollution.