When the Tata's Taj group of hotels agreed to collaborate with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in "improving" the Taj Mahal in June last year, following the department of culture's decision to harness private resources for cultural projects, the ASI's requirements in the MoU it signed with the group of hotels were typically modest: a few repairs like missing inlay work and disintegrating outer walls like the eastern one and the riverfront boundary, water treatment for the garden, better lighting, advice on how to redo the existing Taj museum, pre-recorded tour programmes, and even better restroom facilities. But the Tatas would have none of it: this was going to be a conservation project fit for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's masterpiece, involving global conservation experts like James Westcourt, a world authority on Mughal gardens, and art historian Ebba Koch, conservationists from Getty Foundation and world experts on crowd and visitor management besides museum experts and architects from Intach, lavishing both money and time in designing a project that is likely to become a model for future conservation plans.
Roping in experts for the Taj Mahal Conservation Collaborative (TMCC), a body of world professionals working together on the project with the ASI, was the easiest part of the project, says Rahul Mehrotra, a conservation architect from Mumbai and one of the consultants on the project. "It's a sacred moment in our professional life," he says, "a very intense experience and everyone in TMCC is overwhelmed to be working on the project. The monument itself is of overwhelming beauty but there are so many other layers of perception in its immediate surrounds."
The TMCC has divided their work into three broad areas: monuments, garden and site visitor management. The monuments, agree the experts, are remarkably well-preserved. The Taj Mahal tomb, taller than a 20-storeyed building, forms the architectural focus of a 16-acre complex and is the centrepiece of a symmetrical group of buildings, flanked on the west by a mosque and on the east by its replica, the jawab or answer. "The overall general health of the monument is remarkable," says Mehrotra. Koch goes further: "Every part of the Taj complex is in a good state of preservation." Enthuses another consultant, Amita Beg, from Intach: "It's so brilliantly constructed that even the underground chambers built to accommodate visitors are still amazingly dry." The TMCC, however, is taking no chances: elaborate monitoring, mapping and analysis, x-ray diagnosis are on the cards. "There is no point restoring the missing inlay work until it is ensured that the monument itself does not require any structural changes," points out Mehrotra. Traditional craftsmen of the kind employed by Shah Jahan will be engaged to replace the missing pietra dura work. "This highly specialised technique of Florentine origin was soon mastered to such perfection by the lapidaries of Shah Jahan that the emperor's Persian historian Qazwini considered it a craft peculiar to the stonecutters of India," says Koch, quoting a verse of Shah Jahan's court poet Abu Talib Kalim: "They have inlaid stone flowers in marble/Which surpass reality in colour if not in fragrance." The experts have been debating a little on whether to use the original semi-precious stones or not.
Koch says one can't be certain about who the architect of the Taj was. "It is possible Shah Jahan employed a whole team of architects, including Ustad Ahmad Lahori, Mir Abdul Karim and Makramal Khan. He had daily meetings with them and had a very strong personal involvement and identification with the Taj right from its conception." One reason why the building excites such deep reverence in both the lay visitor and the experts now struggling to conserve it for posterity is because "of a combination of several factors...", says Koch, "perfect planning, the rational quality and its appeal to the senses by its surface, texture and so on."
But, she cautions, the Taj is not an isolated building but part of a complex of riverfront gardens that Shah Jahan encouraged and sometimes even coerced his nobles into building. This is the context that the TMCC feels has been sadly neglected and is now keen to restore. "The environs of the Taj have to be sympathetic to it," says Mehrotra. For a start, the TMCC is focusing on the adjacent Mehtab Bagh, a part of the Taj complex that has almost been erased.
But it is the garden that is the biggest challenge for the experts. Originally designed to provide a perfect frame and setting for the tomb, the large and formal Mughal garden has disappeared without a trace. Ironically, it was the Taj's first conservationist, British Viceroy Lord Curzon, who ploughed some of his American heiress wife's fortune into redesigning the gardens of the Taj Mahal, erasing all traces of the Mughal garden and replacing it with an English garden marked by its featureless lawns. The TMCC experts want the garden to revert to an authentic Mughal garden. But the problem is, nobody quite knows what the original garden looked like.
"There's a lot of material on the buildings, piles of documents right from the planning stage, but no real evidence exists on the garden," points out Beg. "It's the least recorded aspect of Taj history," agrees Mehrotra, "we don't even know what fruit trees and plants they planted." Experts plan to study pollen, Mughal miniatures and conduct excavations to come up with some clues. "A year and a half will go into analysing itself," points out Mehrotra.
The site visitor management ranges from facilities such as a museum equipped with artefacts, miniatures, installations and display, all assisting the visitor to understand the Taj and its environs better, to adequate toilets, an information centre, a waterfront garden and pre-recorded audio guides to the complex. "After all," points out N. Gopalaswami, secretary of culture, "that's what the Taj is all about: for people to come and see it. You can't lock it up, so you have to ensure that it is conserved for posterity without stopping the tourist inflow."
Shah Jahan would have readily agreed. As Koch points out, the emperor built the Taj for admirers from all over the world for generations to come. "In a way, he was building it for us. He made a special effort with a carefully-planned architectural theory, for the days and generations to come," she says. The Taj complex includes small residential courts meant for Khawasspuras or the tomb attendants, bazaars and sarais for visitors. By the time the tomb was completed, the surrounding area had developed into a regular township called Mumtazabad, now called Tajganj. The income of the bazaars and the sarais, together with that of 30 villages from the district of Agra, was devoted by imperial command to the upkeep of the mausoleum.
A monument to love? Koch feels the Taj is more like a statement of Mughal glory. "Shah Jahan was inconsolable, of course, when his favourite wife Arjumand Banus Begum died, even decreeing that no festivals be held on her death anniversary.But he conceived and constructed the Taj for future generations."