The Taj Mahal Needs a Facial

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Indian Muslim devotees offer prayers at The Taj Mahal in Agra.

What to do when one of the world's great icons of beauty and love begins to weather and age? Begin with a cleansing mud pack, at least according to an Indian parliamentary committee looking into the state of the country's most famous monument, the Taj Mahal.

The committee this week reported that pollution — mainly in the form of "suspended particulate matter"(SPM) such as dust and vehicle exhaust — is slowly changing the color of the Taj. "The deposition of SPM on the shimmering white marble of the Taj Mahal imparts yellow tinge to the marble surface," the report states.

The monument has been threatened by other pollutants in the past, including coal dust, while the Supreme Court in the 1990s forced a nearby oil refinery to reduce its emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide before they ate away at the architectural wonder built 350 years ago by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum in memory of his favorite wife. But Agra, like cities all across India, has seen a boom in construction and a sharp increase in the number of cars on its streets, and this has raised new threats to the Taj Mahal. Measures introduced over the past decade to limit the number of cars and buses allowed within a mile or so of the building appear to have had only partial success; the air in boom towns like Agra is just so full of dirt that vehicle exclusion zones become almost meaningless.

The parliamentary report suggests applying a special mud treatment to the building to bring it back to life. "To restore the pristine glory of the Taj Mahal, as a conservation measure, the clay pack treatment which is non-corrosive and non-abrasive [should be] carried out for the removal of the accretionary deposits,"it says.

But M.C. Mehta, an attorney who has spent more than two decades fighting to stop pollution around the Taj and along the sacred Ganges river, says treating the symptoms misses the point. "It is very sad," he says. "We need to do more to stop the pollution rather than fixing its effects." India, he says, "should have pride in its heritage rather than have all this industry come up, this materialism increasing; it's a need for greed that's killing our monuments, our history. If the cultural heritage is not protected then India will lose so much.

Anumita Roychowdhury, head of the air pollution program at the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based research and advocacy group, says it's a question of how much Indians value their heritage — and themselves. "It's the monument but it's also a public health issue," says Roychowdhury. Centre for Science and Environment monitoring in more than 90 Indian cities has found that 57% of them have "critical" levels of particulates that endanger public health. "The Taj can become a flagship to address the pollution challenge, but you really need a city-wide, or a country-wide solution," she says.