The Taj Mahal has a hundred untold stories…


From Harvard Magazine:

Mehrotra was one of the authors of the 1995 historic preservation act that protects that part of Mumbai, the first such law in India. From 1996 until 2005, even after the move to Michigan, he directed Mumbai’s Urban Design Research Institute, advising the city and developers on thoughtful, context-sensitive design. He also wrote books on conservation in India and on the history of Mumbai landmarks, including the Victoria Terminus train station and the Fort District itself.

As a result, he was invited in 2000 to advise the government on the conservation of the Taj Mahal. For this purpose, he created the Taj Mahal Conservation Collaborative, a seven-person body with expertise in structural engineering, landscape architecture, history, conservation, and architecture charged with formulating a conservation master plan for this World Heritage Site. With physical protection and upkeep of the monument already well under control, the group’s report, commissioned by the Indian government and funded by the charitable arm of the multinational Tata Group, focused on creating a richer visitor experience.

It saddens Mehrotra that a visit to the Taj Mahal “is reduced to a one-liner” about a gigantic mausoleum built by a Mughal emperor in memory of his favorite wife. Charming as that story may be, the monument has “a hundred untold stories,” he says, adding, “Constructing the right narratives to engage people with their past is a critical strategy for conservation purposes and for boosting tourism. Accordingly, the master plan shares many of these little-known tales. For example, flanking the main structure are red sandstone buildings that few tourists enter; these are tombs for the emperor’s other wives and the favored wife’s favorite servant. Across the Yamuna River, one can see the crumbling remains of a terraced garden that was part of the complex. The gardens and reflecting pool sited in front of the monument were British additions—originally, an orchard covered the grounds, hiding the base of the mausoleum and making it appear to float above the trees. Paving stones bear engraved signatures of the original craftsmen (apparently a way of tracking their work to ensure they would be paid fairly); elsewhere in the complex, one can visit the medieval city where these craftsmen lived or the nursery where garden plants were cultivated.

The report’s recommendation that these stories become part of the tourist experience has not yet been implemented, and a visitors’ center completed five years ago is still not open. This experience and others have taught Mehrotra that political factors are nearly as important as the design itself in determining a project’s ultimate outcome.

“Designs for a New India”, Elizabeth Gudrais, Harvard Magazine