The Beauty and the Filth: The Reality of the Taj Mahal and Agra

Posted by Isha Chitnis in Environment, Society
January 11, 2017

The Taj Mahal rises above the banks of the river like a solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time.”

This was what Rabindranath Tagore had to say about the Taj, way back in his time. Things have changed since then and drastically, too. ‘The Symbol of Love’ , ‘The Pride of India’ and one of the Seven Wonders of the World isn’t really in that good a condition as it is made out to be. I was at the Taj on Independence Day this past year and I still don’t quite know if I was impressed or disappointed because what I’ve heard and what I saw don’t have much in common.

All of us who studied in India have studied about the yellowing of the Taj due to the release of toxic gases from the Mathura Refinery located 50 km away from the  Taj, in Mathura. I have never been to the Taj before, but the discoloration is very obvious. Even from behind and afar, as spotted from the Mehtab Bagh. It looked beautiful from that distance, with hundreds of people walking around it, giving it a Mecca-like look.  We had to overcome various obstacles to actually reach Agra – it was almost like a very intense video game, except the only thing we won was a glimpse of the Taj.


Poor management

Owing to poor planning, we didn’t carry enough cash while driving from Delhi to Agra. We took the Yamuna Expressway, which is famous for the way it’s built and the greenery along the roads and the impeccable roads. One thing nobody mentions is that there is not ONE ATM along the road once you hit the expressway. Not at the big fancy restaurants, not at the petrol pumps. I, for one, found this to be absolutely RIDICULOUS.

I obviously tweeted about it, (yes, obviously) and a friend said she went through the same thing 3 years ago. Her situation was worse – she didn’t have cash, she was running out of fuel and the petrol pumps didn’t accept cards. This time, we heard “Madam network hi nahin hain, hum kya karein?” (Madam, we don’t have access to telecom networks, what can we do?). Compared to that, our situation seemed manageable, we just didn’t have money to pay the 2,000 toll nakas waiting for our money.

We had to take a detour to Mathura, which we never reached because of the traffic jam that stretched out for kilometres on end. We found a couple of ATMs there, which were either closed or out of service. We turned around, took the Delhi-Agra road and boy, were we surprised by how the city welcomed us!

An out-of-service ATM on the road to Mathura.
An out-of-service ATM on the road to Mathura.| Photo by Ankit Vengurlekar

Hit hard by reality

A throwback to when my mom visited Agra in 2008 without me and I threw a temper tantrum because I wanted to see the famous Taj Mahal, too. I wish I’d gone then because when I saw what I saw that day, more than 8 years later, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see more. You enter Agra and the traffic and heat hit you and they hit you hard.

Hundreds of trucks loaded with goods lined up with no sign of movement. The streets are lined with small stalls and hawkers and filth, basically. Nobody is obeying the traffic signals, I didn’t even notice whether there any signals to obey. The roads are in terrible condition. “It’s okay, it’s the main road to Agra”, I thought to myself. The Taj Mahal is just 10 km from this polluted main road. We entered the area of the Agra Fort, which is in the vicinity of the Taj. Potholes. More potholes. Small roads, cars stuck, cars parked on the road, hogging half the space. The Taj is just 3 km away. THIS is the road to the Taj Mahal.

Photo by Ankit Vengurlekar
Photo by Ankit Vengurlekar

I was almost traumatized, a mix of surprise and disappointment. THIS is what foreign tourists pass through to visit the monument? This is terrible. Ankit rightly expressed,” The visit to the Taj Mahal should be a flawless experience, right from entering the city to visiting the monument to leaving the city. India = Taj Mahal for most foreigners. Is THIS what we want them to see?” I couldn’t agree more. I had heard that the vehicles are banned from entering the pollution free zone around the Taj. That’s in the front. What goes on behind is a different story.


That photo is taken from a Telegraph UK article. The photo I took from Mehtab Bagh is from quite a distance and I didn’t get to take a photo like this, but hey, that’s definitely not Photoshop.

The Tourist Experience

The whole experience of visiting the Taj is a whole different story. The whole process from the moment you step out of your car till the moment you come back is a money-making one. The parking is ₹80, the ride in the horse drawn rickshaw or the electric rickshaw will cost you anything between ₹20-100, depending on your bargaining skills and time of the day. One the way, people will try to sell you the protective mitten sort of thing you’ve to put on your shoes when you enter the main tomb. The entry will cost you ₹40 or between ₹500 – 1,000 if you’re a foreigner. I still haven’t understood the logic for this, too. We don’t get charged differently when we visit other countries, and even if we do, it’s not such an outrageous difference. In fact, I’ve gotten student discounts in Germany, without them even asking for a school identity card, even when I was a student in India.

Image Courtesy-
Image Courtesy-

The outside of the main tomb has walls turned almost brown due to the number of dirty hands that have touched it. The carving is so intricate and beautiful and the number of man hours gone into this cannot be fathomed. Every single petal, every flower (which the guides there describe as having a secret ‘Om’ symbol hidden in them). The monument in itself is extremely overwhelming with its grand design and architecture and the minute, delicate carvings. Just the realization of the fact that in those days, they didn’t have trucks to transport all that marble and machines to cut through it or computers to design the monument and its surroundings and still achieving perfect symmetry is beyond impressive. It’s sad what it’s starting to look like now. There are also reports of insects turning some carvings green. 

The darkened walls outside the tomb. Image Courtesy-

There was colour restoration work going on on one of the minarets, and I managed to capture the clear difference in colour. By the way, the Mathura Refinery  I mentioned earlier, the one that CAUSED the yellowing, is currently asking the government for an EXPANSION, raising its refining capacity from 8 to 11 million tonnes. Yeah, that. Why not, we want more of THIS.
On going restoration

As soon as you leave the premises, there will be stalls selling petha and other sweets, magnets, those dome things which have snowflake-like things floating around (snow globes), those ‘Aankhon Mein Teri’ things, yeah, those and other souvenirs. Then the ride back to the parking, which also isn’t smooth because of internal traffic jams. The amount of effort and time and money that has gone into building this monument is huge. What are we doing with it? People travel from all over the world to see this beauty in all its glory. People travel from all over the country to see the monument of love, to see what it is capable of. Maybe we should love it a little, too?

The river Tagore was referring to, our very own Yamuna, is full of filth and the Taj Mahal now rises above it like a solitary yellow teardrop.