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Historical monuments – surviving in the era of pollution
18 November 2007 Hervé Bonnaveira

The anthropogenic deterioration (caused by air pollution, acid rain, and the presence of too many tourists) of historical monuments that’s leading to their wear and tear is also the driving force behind the increasing efforts to protect and rebuild them.

The architectural masterpieces Agra , Fatehpur Sikri, Orcha and Khajuraho, historical Indian cities we’ve seen during our bicycle journey, strike us with their beauty and their timeless grandeur. We were interested to find out if these monuments had resisted the test of modern time.

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Particle sediments have turned the original marble of the Taj Mahal yellow

TRANSLATED BY Rashaad JORDEN april 2010

First, Mark Twain - then Bill Clinton - said while passing through Agra , “The world is divided into two groups: those who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who haven’t seen it.”
Considered to be one of the seven marvels of the world, the Taj Mahal was built in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to receive the corps of his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal. There is no lack of superlatives to describe this architectural wonder: “a teardrop on the cheek of time,” according to the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, and “the softness of white bread, milk, and talcum powder” according to Henri Michaux.
Each day, there are 20,000 people who want to enter “the other category.” But first, they have to push aside the hordes of beggars whose fingers are chopped off, vendors selling souvenirs at a reduced price, touts selling the “least expensive hotels” and other guides spilling out in two minutes all of their French, Italian and Spanish vocabularies to finally arrive at the ticket booth and suddenly drop 750 rupees – roughly 14 euros (The minimum daily salary in India is 55 rupees). When you go through the security check and the door, you notice a stark change in scenery. You enter a huge garden, a true haven of cleanliness and calm surrounded by the chaos of the city. Two big alleys flanked by hedges and fountains lead to the stone filigree mausoleum. That’s the apex of its beauty.

However, according to those who have seen the Taj Mahal, you could further divide it by those who have it seen before. Indeed, while looking at it more closely, the white marble is losing its original state and is turning yellow due to pollution. The same phenomenon has also taken place in Kolkata on the memorial of Queen Victoria . This staining is due to particle sediments coming from the combustion of fossil fuels. Acid rain is also likely to lead to the corrosion of marble, although the concentrations of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide have been measured at acceptable levels in Agra . Tiny mushrooms are growing in the interior of the mausoleum.
For ten years, the government has been installing a rescue plan for this national treasure which includes the transfer of certain polluting factories, the prohibition of cars in a radius of two kilometers around the building (replaced by electric buses, rickshaws and carriages) and the restoration of a wooden area between the Taj Mahal and the nearby Yamuna River, which is rather polluted. A 2007 report issued by the Indian parliament advocates “the application of a non-corrosive and non-abrasive clay to remove the accumulating particles.” This “facial mask,” estimated to cost 230,000 dollars, consists of recovering a clay monument that’s allowed to dry before everything is washed. For more in-depth information, go to http://www.american.edu/TED/taj.htm#r5. Let’s wait for the results.
The other tourist spots in smaller cities allow us to complete this contrasting picture of Indian monuments.

40 kilometers from Agra , Fatehpur Sikri houses the “Jama Masjid” mosque as well as palaces and house from the Akbar era (another prominent 16th century Mughal emperor). From visiting the mosque, it’s clear that cleanliness, a basic rule in Islam, stops at the surrounding wall. If you feel like avoiding the “Sublime Porte,” you will find, to your right, wells full of an age-old greenish water where children offer to dive for several rupees and behind you, the smelly discharge coming from the city, which will be replaced by a green area.

In the Madhya Pradesh, the medieval city of Orchha , off the beaten path, is conducive to serenity as its Betwa River is surprisingly clean by Indian standards. The Raja Mahal palace, built in the 16th century and former residence of the last local Maharajah, has fallen apart. Certain footbridges have collapsed and panoramic murals dedicated to Hindu deities have all completely faded. Getting lost in the maze of hallways and stairs over floors puts you in the body of an explorer who’s rediscovering places after years of oblivion.

In Khajuraho, Hindu temples date from the ninth to the eleventh century. Overwhelmed by the jungle and completely forgotten, they were rediscovered by the British colonists. These buildings, famous for their representations of images of daily life (in particular, erotic sculptures – a true “Kama Sutra” in stone) are paradoxically in an excellent state of conservation. The park surrounding them has been magnificently laid out. The maintenance ranges from plantation work to the touching up of sculptures with a palm tree-fibered paintbrush. What patience! A profitable monument means a well-maintained monument.
TRANSLATED BY Rashaad JORDEN april 2010

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