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Erasing Culture


The court order to close shops in the Tajganj area near the Taj Mahal in Agra is a sad example of disconnect from reality. In other words, the tourism industry in the city is being advised on how to conduct its affairs by persons entirely unaware of the ground situation. In the name of the environment and other concerns, the Taj is over the past few years being turned from a ‘living monument’ into a ‘preserved fossil’.

There has been a precious ethos developed around the Taj over decades. True, pollution from foundries and leather works was discolouring the marble on the Taj, but its transformation from a ‘monument of love’ to an ‘archaeological wonder’ to be enjoyed in a five star environment has taken away from the enormous cultural dividends that easy and close access allowed. This is apart from the economic benefits that accrued to the small shopkeepers and others involved in serving tourists. Instead of a personal embrace for the citizens of Agra, it has become a distant and ‘hands-off heritage’.

It was usual at one time for the residents of the city to throng the Taj on moonlit nights to enjoy its changes of mood from dusk to dawn. Access was easy and cheap. There were photographers who spent a lifetime capturing its looks from every angle. Young people would find favourite nooks to read books and pass the time. Lovers would meet for special, precious moments, which would be replicated in umpteen Bollywood movies. Also, foreigners from all parts of the world got to interact with locals in a relaxed and amicable environment. They were cheated by touts, helped out by strangers, often established life-long friendships with those they met.

Tajganj, which was originally the home of the craftsmen who built the monument, later became a cluster of shops that sold the same marble and other art work that is seen at the Taj. Several of these shopkeepers married foreigners, thereby continuing the tradition of romance established by Shahjahan and Mumtaz Mahal.

Large groups of very ordinary people from all parts of the country would visit and feel comfortable in the precincts. Now, they find a changed environment that distances them from that comfort. A restaurant outside the rear gate of the Taj, named ‘Relax’ (with multiple meanings), had developed cuisine in the seventies that had Indian flavours but was palatable to foreigners. That kind of food is now available at almost every popular destination in India. That entire culture is being taken away just because some high-ups in society feel they know better. And a living tradition will soon be dead, and with it much of the grassroots tourism economy of the city, already badly hit. It will be just the dollar millionaires flying in, checking into seven star hotels and getting the regulation photograph clicked with the Taj in the background. Nobody will be inspired to write a long poem, as two Australian women irreverently once did, whose refrain went:

“Forget the Mughals they are gone,

Let us make love upon the lawns of the Taj Mahal.”