Grimy tale

Till early 2000s, ASI used chem­i­cals for con­ser­va­tion with­out any re­search on their ef­fect on the mon­u­ment

Down to Earth - - THE FORTNIGHT -

The mar­ble used in the Taj Ma­hal has a unique translu­cent qual­ity.It is also a lit­tle del­i­cate. Soft mar­ble was used on pur­pose to fa­cil­i­tate in­lay work and carv­ing.It is more vul­ner­a­ble to cracks and break­age, and has to be han­dled with care. But back in the 1970s the Arche­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of In­dia (asi) started to rou­tinely use chem­i­cals to clean the mar­ble and sand­stone in the Taj. A 2006 book, ti­tled The Com­plete Taj Ma­hal, by art his­to­rian Ebba Koch says the asi had been us­ing “am­mo­nium and non-ionic de­ter­gents, hy­dro­gen per­ox­ide and tri­ethanolamine with ab­sorbent clay packs con­tain­ing mag­ne­sium trisil­i­cate, alu­minium sil­i­cate… and with sol­vents like eth­yl­ene dichlo­ride, ben­zene and tri­ethanolamine” till 2002. Koch is a pro­fes­sor at the In­sti­tute of Art His­tory in Vi­enna, Aus­tria, and is con­sid­ered a lead­ing author­ity on Mughal ar­chi­tec­ture.

What is strange is that the asi de­cided to use the chem­i­cals with­out car­ry­ing out any re­search on the ef­fects of the chem­i­cals even when con­ser­va­tion­ists have hinted that they might con­trib­ute to the yel­low­ing of the stone.

In 1993,O P Agrawal, for­mer direc­tor of the Na­tional Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory for Con­ser­va­tion of Cul­tural Prop­erty, wrote in a pa­per pub­lished in jour­nal Pu­ratattva, an an­nual bul­letin of the In­dian Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal So­ci­ety, that not just pol­lu­tion, but sev­eral other fac­tors were also re­spon­si­ble for the dis­coloura­tion of the mon­u­ment and that con­trol­ling pol­lu­tion alone would not help. The pa­per says that at least one of the chem­i­cals used to clean the Taj, poly­methyl methacry­late, was re­spon­si­ble for yel­low­ing.It was used to wash the west­ern gar­den-wall pav­il­ion and east and west walls.The chem­i­cal is a preser­va­tive which is trans­par­ent while ap­ply­ing, but turns yel­low later. Ni­l­abh Sinha, head of the Ma­te­rial Her­itage Di­vi­sion of non-profit In­dian Na­tional Trust for Art and Cul­tural Her­itage (intach), says poly­methyl methacry­late may have been in vogue dur­ing the 1990s and early 2000s. asi of­fi­cials claim they no more use harsh chem­i­cals.asi, how­ever ,is tight-lipped on why chem­i­cals were used in the first place and when were they stopped. Of­fi­cials are also si­lent over whether the chem­i­cals de­te­ri­o­rated the mon­u­ment .A 2008-09 book­let of asi’s science branch in Agra states the agency used chem­i­cals to re­move ac­cre­tionary de­posits on the mar­ble in the main mau­soleum, the main arches and the or­na­men­tal screen around the ceno­taph. “In many cases, wax pol­ish was ap­plied on the cleaned sur­face, fol­lowed by bur­nish­ing, ”says the book­let ti­tled Fo­cus on Sci­en­tific Con­ser­va­tion of Cul­tural Her­itage. The book­let, how­ever, says asi now uses only glyc­erol, cel­lo­solve and sodium bi­car­bon­ate. “We now use fuller’s earth pack ( mul­tani mitti) that ab­sorbs im­pu­ri­ties from the sur­face. We only add glyc­erol, cel­lo­solve and sodium bi­car­bon­ate in sum­mers to en­sure that the pack does not dry out fast. It takes at least 24 hours for proper clean­ing, ”says an of­fi­cial in asi, Agra. “Such alkaline prod­ucts are usu­ally not harm­ful for stones, in­clud­ing mar­ble,” says Satish Pandey, fac­ulty at the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion at the Na­tional Mu­seum In­sti­tute of His­tory of Art, Con­ser­va­tion and Muse­ol­ogy, Delhi.The asi started us­ing fuller’s earth in 1984,but it was mixed with “harm­ful ”alu­minium sil­i­cate and mag­ne­sium trisil­i­cate to re­move greasy par­tic­u­late mat­ter, states the asi book­let (See ‘Ef­forts to keep the Taj’s glory, p38-39).

Con­ser­va­tion­ists stress the need for more re­search on the con­ser­va­tion ma­te­rial used and their long-term im­pact. “The mar­ble stones used on the Taj Ma­hal are not uni­formly white and have dif­fer­ent shades. They may re­act dif­fer­ently to chem­i­cals and this needs to be stud­ied care­fully,” says con­ser­va­tion ar­chi­tect Ratish Nanda, who heads the In­dia op­er­a­tions of the Agha Khan

Trust for Art and Cul­tural Her­itage. “Even the ef­fect of wa­ter needs to be checked be­fore used for clean­ing, ”says Pandey .Amita Baig, who worked with the Taj Ma­hal Con­ser­va­tion Col­lab­o­ra­tive, says asi should also fo­cus on red sand­stone that is highly por­ous and prone to weath­er­ing.

Vis­i­tors' pres­sure

Apart from chem­i­cals, a big threat to the Taj’s con­ser­va­tion is the in­creas­ing foot­fall. With the growth in the tourism in­dus­try and the con­struc­tion of Ya­muna Ex­press­way that con­nects Agra with Delhi, the num­ber of tourists vis­it­ing the mon­u­ment has in­creased man­i­fold in re­cent years. When the Supreme Court passed its judge­ment in 1996,Taj Ma­hal re­ceived 0.2 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year.It touches 10 mil­lion a year to­day, which is dou­ble the num­ber of tourists vis­it­ing the Vat­i­can City. And while the Vat­i­can is spread over an area of 44 hectares, the Taj Ma­hal com­plex is spread over just 16 hectares. “The num­ber is as­tound­ing when one con­sid­ers that the mon­u­ment was built to han­dle only 40-50 peo­ple a day, ”says Baig.

Ac­cord­ing to the ticket sales data, the mon­u­ment re­ceives over 25,000 vis­i­tors on week­days and over 40,000 dur­ing week­ends. The ac­tual fig­ure will be higher be­cause en­try is free for chil­dren up to the age of 15 years. “The num­ber in­creases when there is a cen­tralised exam in the city as al­most all ex­am­i­nees from out­side the city come with fam­ily mem­bers who visit the Taj,” says Raj Ku­mar ,one of the asi of­fi­cials re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing tourists at the mon­u­ment.The gov­ern­ment earned over ` 20 crore through ticket sale in 2011,sug­gests asi data.

The ac­tion of tourists’ feet wears away the stone in the pavings, floors and ter­races. The pres­ence of crowd in­side the tomb cham­ber shoots up the hu­mid­ity level. Many suc­ceed in writ­ing their names on the walls with felt pens, ne­ces­si­tat­ing the use of ag­gres­sive clean­ing sub­stances, says Koch in her book.asi of­fi­cials ad­mit the prob­lem and say they are con­sid­er­ing the rec­om­men­da­tions sub­mit­ted by the Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal En­gi­neer­ing Re­search In­sti­tute (neeri) in March this year on the Taj Ma­hal’s car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity. Tourism and Cul­ture min­is­ter Mukesh Sharma last month said the neeri rec­om­men­da­tion to re­strict vis­i­tors to the mon­u­ment for two hours will be an­nounced soon. But ex­perts say the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem with the restora­tion work is that it lacks fu­ture plan­ning. “We are only cop­ing with to­day and not plan­ning for to­mor­row, ”warns Baig.

Growth in

tourism in­dus­try and con­struc­tion of ex­press­way con­nect­ing Agra with Delhi have led to man­i­fold rise in num­ber

of vis­i­tors

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