Will the Taj collapse in five years?

By Brij Khandelwal, IANS,

Agra : “Will the Taj Mahal really collapse in five years?” is the question being asked here after a British newspaper published a report saying so. But both the Indian MP and the historian quoted by the daily say it is a false alarm though there are such fears due to the drying of the Yamuna river.

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The report in the Daily Mail by James Tapper earlier this week quoted local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Ram Shankar Katheria as saying that the foundation of the world famous 17th century mausoleum had been damaged and the wood used in the wells had rotted.

“The Taj could collapse in five years,” Katheria is reported to have said. Eminent Mughal historian R. Nath was also quoted.

Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) officials at the Taj Mahal took a look at the rear of the Taj Mahal facing the Yamuna river after the alarm.

“We did not find any signs of stress or cracks,” said an ASI official not wanting to be named.

However, Katheria told IANS he had only expressed his apprehensions and fears because the river had no water which was necessary for the good health of the structure.

“I have not given any deadline and some people asked me on phone, so I expressed my view,” he said, adding he wasn’t even too sure if he had talked to any foreign media.

Nath has on many occasions and in his numerous books on Mughal architecture explained the importance of a “full-flowing Yamuna at the rear of the Taj Mahal”. But he too is not categorical on a timeframe.

“A pointless alarm is being created. The water in the Yamuna is necessary to counter-balance horizontally the massive weight of the Taj Mahal. Whether the wood used in the foundation should remain in water or not cannot be commented upon. It is for the experts and the civil engineers to investigate,” he said.

Most historians and architects have been expressing fears that a dry river could pose a threat to the Taj Mahal.

“Water in the river is an essential pre-requisite to maintain the massive foundation that supports a complex system of wells, arches and wooden spoked wheels. Dry ambience could fragment and disintegrate the sal wood,” a retired ASI official told IANS, requesting anonymity.

While many studies and independent investigations have been carried out on the mausoleum, the gardens, the structures flanking the main dome, little work has been done to monitor or assess the damage to the foundation which is under constant pressure from increasing number of visitors and the dry Yamuna.

In 1987, a Unesco-backed experts committee of B.M. Feilden and P. Beckmann noted with concern that there was remarkably little information about the foundations and the nature of the sub-soil.

“In a building of this supreme importance to the world cultural heritage, it is essential to have full knowledge of the foundations and the soil to assess the effect of possible changes in the sub-soil and water regimes such as industrial water extraction and the consequences of seismic activity,” the committee’s report said.

Many experts have in the past advised drilling of borings to assess the risks to the foundations of the Taj Mahal.

Said a historian requesting anonymity: “Hardly anyone knows the depth of the Taj Mahal’s foundations. No one knows the levels of the ground upon which it was built.”

ASI officials, however, sound “over-confident” and discount any possibility of damage to the foundations.

Conservationists, on the other hand, want detailed investigation of the inner chambers that have been sealed and the foundation of the Taj Mahal.

Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society president Surendra Sharma said: “No systematic investigation has been carried out on the impact of the drying of the Yamuna river which has always been considered an integral part of the Taj Mahal complex.”

“One also needs to take into account the increasing weight and pressure from steeply rising number of visitors. From just a hundred a century ago, the daily number has crossed 20,000. On some days it crosses 50,000,” he added.

“The polluted water, industrial effluents flowing so dangerously close to the foundation could have had a corrosive effect. The mandarins in the ASI have so thoughtlessly altered the physical layout of the area by developing a park at the rear of the building, further distancing the river by a hundred metres,” Sharma said.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at [email protected])