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Published in the 1-15 Nov 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Taj Mahal’s 350th Birthday 

Taj Mahal Agra: One of the world's most famous monuments, India's Taj Mahal, started a year-long celebrations of its 350th birthday on 27 September with a cultural extravaganza that hopes to pay a fitting tribute to the historic symbol of love. 
The celebrations, held at a Mughal fort near the white marble mausoleum, started with a release of pigeons and a kite-flying contest before moving to a classical music concert at sunset with the Taj as the backdrop. Archaeologists want to open the Taj for night viewing on full moon nights as part of the celebrations, which are expected to draw millions of visitors to the congested, polluted town of Agra, 125 miles south of New Delhi. 

Coinciding with the start of celebrations, India's Supreme Court is hearing a petition by the government of Uttar Pradesh state, where Agra is located, seeking the lifting of a ban on allowing visitors to the Taj after sunset. The ban was imposed in 1984 following reports that the monument was a target of militant groups and reinforced in 2000 over concern about preserving the site where every day up to 15,000 people file past the manicured lawns of the imposing structure, built by Emperor Shahjahan as a testament to his love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth. Historians say Shahjahan consulted experts from the Middle East as he planned his legacy, which took 20,000 people over 22 years to build. Although there is some dispute about when it was finished, the government and the Archaeological Survey of India say 1654. 

The Taj Mahal stands on a marble platform surrounded by ornamental gardens. White minarets grace each corner and two smaller red sandstone buildings balance the postcard-perfect image on the banks of the Yamuna River. 

But the surface of the onion-domed monument became yellow over the years because of automobile fumes, smoke from small factories, a large oil refinery at Mahura and funeral pyres at a nearby cremation ground. Two years ago, authorities used a pack made of brown clay to restore the original whiteness of the mausoleum. 

"Pollution is no longer a problem. But the building is stressed because of the huge number of visitors," said D. Dayalan, head of the Archaeological Survey of India in Agra. "Vandalism remains a big threat. The breathing of the visitors can damage the building. Also, so many people walking on the same path for years has caused some abrasion on the floor," he said. It may be a monument to love, but the Taj has seen its share of trials and tribulations. Last year, the Uttar Pradesh government began work on a shopping mall on a river bank near the Taj before it was halted following a row over the plan, which environmentalists said posed a danger to the monument. When war clouds loomed in 2002, Indian officials drew up a plan to camouflage the monument, one of the seven wonders of the world, with olive green cloth to stop Pakistani jets from spotting it. 

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