historian Sir Kenneth Clark once remarked "nothing except love
is so universally appealing as a view". It is this union of
undying love and incomparable architectural beauty that makes the
Taj Mahal one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This is the magic
that millions from across the world flock to experience in Agra.
now the Agra Development Authority (ADA) has laid out its ‘vision’
for the Taj and Agra city. In order to enhance our ‘viewing pleasure’,
it proposes to erect a giant Ferris wheel, emulating the ‘London
Eye’. In addition, two ropeways will be suspended across the Yamuna,
and cable cars will surround the Taj. Thus, as the eye will travel
from that ethereal vision in marble to packs of people struggling
across ropeways, as cables cars slide up and down and, as the ‘Eye’
descends on the Taj with its hordes suspended in glass capsules,
it will assume its final embodiment – that of a freakish curiosity,
an infantile fancy set in an amusement park. All this would be done
the ADA assures us, in order to improve ‘visitor experience’.
is more disturbing than this blighted vision is the complete denial
of, and the unwillingness to focus on, what actually and urgently
needs to be done. As you drive into Agra past ungainly concrete
boxes, there, on a discrete bank of a desolate river, shimmering
out of the muck and mire, its vast dome tainted a slightly grimy
brown, is the Taj Mahal. Descending on ground zero, the visitor
appreciates the Supreme Court order banning all vehicles within
500 metres of the Taj, and proceeds to walk down what appears to
be a broad leafy avenue, quite unprepared for what lies ahead. And
then it begins.
all manner of people accost you, pester you. ‘Guides’, urchins,
beggars, hawkers – it’s a free for all. As you shake them off in
exasperation and walk on, your nostrils are assailed by the foulest
gut-wrenching stink ever possible. The cause of this olfactory offence
is two large open drains, lining both sides of the road, filled
with black pungent slime that slowly courses along like a gentle
stream. You try to run past thinking you will escape its foul embrace
but its pursuit is relentless. Soon, the odours of rotting effluvia
mix in with the sharp pungency of horse urine. As tongas
trot past, the horses disgorge their intestinal contents all over
the promenade. This mixes in with vast runnels of camel urine that
meander down the road as people are heaved toward the Taj atop the
hapless beast – their visit enhanced by the ‘camel experience’.
Desperate for some way to make a getaway you try to hail an Agra
Tourism ‘battery bus’, crammed with people, sweat pouring down,
the sides of the white bus a grimy black. What is supposed to be
the start to an unforgettable experience has already turned unpleasant
and left you rattled and furious. This, then – the filth, the excrement,
the unforgivable stink, the chaos – is the introduction to India’s
premier tourist destination.
a city! A perfumed garden, newly in flower – its buildings have
grown tall like cypress trees," says Abu Talib Kalim, in a
poem in praise of Akbarabad (Agra), from his Diwan written in the
1630s. Ebba Koch, historian and passionate scholar of Mughal architecture,
in her meticulously researched book The Complete Taj Mahal,
brings alive a picture of Agra in its glory : "The Taj Mahal
complex seems unique today, but when it was created, it was integrated
into the scheme of Mughal Agra as one of its constituent elements.
The prevailing garden type of city, the riverfront garden, was enlarged
on an unparalleled scale and arranged in a perfectly symmetrical
composition. The typical was used to create the outstanding."
had long been enriched by the flowering of empires, first under
the Lodhis and later the Mughals, to reach its zenith during the
rule of the Emperor Akbar. Mughal architecture found its greatest
expression under him. By the time Shah Jahan came to the throne
in 1628, Agra was, as Abdul Aziz put it , "A wonder of the
age – as much a centre of the arteries of trade both by land and
water as a meeting place of saints, sages and scholars from all
Asia… A veritable lodestar for artistic workmanship, literary talent
and spiritual worth."
was not just the Lodhis and Mughals who left their architectural
imprint on Agra. As it succumbed to the vicissitudes of the rise
and fall of empires, it found brief favour with the British, who
left the city with an impressive colonial architectural legacy.
in the midst of the concrete confusion that is Agra today, it is
difficult to recreate a picture of the great city of the past. With
a bit a patient plodding, however, the city manages to throw up
many surprises. There are still a large number of beautiful buildings
that shine through the pervasive shabbiness – the smatterings of
an architectural heritage that illuminate Agra’s chequered history
from the time of the Lodhis, through the Mughals, the Marathas the
Jats and finally the British. As one comes across these buildings
there is a growing realisation that, despite its chaos, parts of
the old city are within reach of redemption. There is a spatial
contiguity that is still vaguely present in the remains of Mugal
Agra, with its riverfront havelis, the Agra Fort, the surviving
great monuments and the Taj. The same is true of numerous colonial
buildings and the cantonment area. The destruction wrought in the
post-independence era is not as complete as in the case of, say,
Delhi, where its monuments and ruins stand in complete isolation
from their surroundings.
exceptional effort and dedication, Agra could be revived as a city
of beauty, its priceless built legacy restored. But can the city’s
administration – the municipal corporation, the urban development
and the heritage development wings, come together and work to a
plan? A plan that could recover the Yamuna from the stinking sewer
that it has become? Work at restoring the riverfront through a painstaking
study of paintings and writings, to create again the lost gardens
along the banks? Through gradual restoration, the riverfront havelis
and structures surrounding the Fort could be recovered. Within
the city, heritage status could be conferred on the numerous stunning
colonial buildings that house schools, colleges and other institutions,
and be brought into the ambit of protection.
its built heritage, Agra is famous for its marble inlay and carving.
Yet the plight of craftsmen is pitiable today, the art itself has
been severely corrupted, and artisans are increasingly abandoning
their craft in search of better paying alternatives. Some of the
presently degraded heritage buildings could be turned into ateliers,
were artisans could practice and perfect their craft under Government
patronage. Such institutions could also attract students and apprentices
from India and abroad, to learn from master craftsmen. Old and unclaimed
structures could be restored and leased out to museums, restaurants,
book, art and craft shops, all bound to abide by strict heritage
laws. Agra could learn from Florence, a city of the great age of
the renaissance. Florence is, today, a vital and thriving centre
of heritage, art and culture, and a premier tourist destination.
It offers a dramatic example of a harmonious transition to the modern
is India’s foremost tourist attraction. In 2007-08 it witnessed
an inflow of 2.7 million foreign tourists. USD 2.3 million was raised
from the Taj alone. The ADA’s harebrained scheme is justified as
an effort to bring in more bucks to the city exchequer through tourism.
It is, however, tawdry and extortionist in its orientation. Charging
foreigners huge amounts of money as entrance fees is not a very
winning idea. The London eye? Well, its there in London, in Singapore,
as well as in every two hick town hosting a carnival.
come to India to see this great country with its amazing history
and its stunning art and architecture – so startlingly different
from anything they ever encounter elsewhere. Just the Taj generates
extraordinary earnings. If the city could be rid of its crust of
filth, and the inertia of its civic authorities, if its planners
could imaginatively connect the past to the present, and if the
life of the city could be imbued with the essence of the spirit
that once prevailed during the times of the great Emperor Akbar,
it would hit pay dirt. A revitalized and restored city would effortlessly
attract tourists. Piecemeal, imitative and unimaginative alternatives
can only serve to further destroy the city’s priceless heritage.
OutlookIndia.com, October 14, 2009