Taj Mahal getting the cold shoulder

NEW DELHI • In recent years, the Taj Mahal, India's iconic monument to eternal love, has taken a beating. Its attendance figures are down. Air pollution is slowly turning its ethereal white marble yellow.

And now, to make matters worse, some in India feel that a staunch Hindu nationalist government recently elected in the Taj's home state of Uttar Pradesh is starving the world heritage site of funds and support because it was built by Muslim invaders.

The state's new chief minister, the saffron-robed Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath, set the tone early on when he lamented at a rally that tiny models of the Taj Mahal are often given to visiting foreign dignitaries, saying the monument "does not reflect Indian culture".

The Taj, the country's biggest tourism draw, was not allotted any cultural heritage funds in the state budget for the coming year. And, in a blow that provoked yelps of protest from India's opposition party, the monument was omitted from the state's official tourism brochure last week.

Indian National Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi likened a tourism brochure without the Taj Mahal to a Hamlet-less Hamlet.

"If it is a booklet on tourism and it excludes Taj Mahal, at one level it is a joke and at another level it is tragic. It is like saying we will have Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark," Mr Singhvi told reporters on Monday. He called the omission "a clear religious bias which is completely misplaced".

Mr Adityanath's government countered the criticism by saying that the state, supported by funds from the World Bank, had slated US$22 million (S$30 million) for the monument for new gates and a multi-level parking structure.

JARRING OMISSION

If it is a booklet on tourism and it excludes Taj Mahal, at one level it is a joke and at another level it is tragic. It is like saying we will have Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS SPOKESMAN ABHISHEK MANU SINGHVI, on the Uttar Pradesh state government's new official tourism brochure.

"The Taj Mahal is the seventh wonder of the world. It has always been a priority for not only Uttar Pradesh but for the entire country of India," said Mr Awanish Awasthi, Mr Adityanath's principal secretary. "It will always be central to our tourism policy, but there were some other new projects we wanted to feature."

The soaring white marble mausoleum, a Unesco World Heritage Site, was built in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his late wife Mumtaz Mahal, and is considered one of the finest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture.

India's famed poet Rabindranath Tagore called it "one teardrop... on the cheek of time".

The Taj Mahal has long been one of India's prime tourist draws for foreign visitors, but its tourist numbers have fallen steadily since 2012, despite the opening of a modern highway that can shoot tour buses there from the nation's capital, New Delhi, in under three hours.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, 480,000 tourists visited the mausoleum in 2015, a 35 per cent drop from the 743,000 who visited in 2012.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2017, with the headline 'Taj Mahal getting the cold shoulder'. Print Edition | Subscribe