Updated: November 23, 2010 11:37 IST

Goldmine of information on the Taj Mahal

T. Satyamurthy
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Monument restoration is an ancient phenomenon. Indian texts on architecture spell out the methods to be adopted in retrofitting damaged structures and images. Some ancient literary works give specific instances of such effort. Though the concept of conservation is old, the practices and measures used for it are totally different in modern times.

The modern school lays emphasis on documenting the conservation decisions in every minute detail. Such documentation is a prerequisite for restoration all over the world. In India, scientific conservation of ancient monuments dates back only to the early decade of the 20th century. It may not be wrong to trace the codification of the practice suitable for Indian conditions to Conservation Manual (1923), the seminal work of John Marshall, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India.

Seen in this perspective, this book by Dayalan documenting the efforts made to conserve the world renowned Taj is remarkable. The Taj, India's monument par excellence, has fascinated generation after generation, and its magic charm continues unabated. An attempt to track, historically, the story of how such a monument came to be conserved at different points in time is commendable. A massive restoration project ordered by Viceroy Lord Curzon was completed in 1908.

Mughal architecture

In the introductory chapter, Dayalan offers a brief historical account of the Mughal rulers and their all-round achievements. A comprehensive description of the Taj and the several structures in the complex claims a major share — and understandably so — of the chapter devoted, among others, to the architectural development of the construction of tombs and mosques. Interspaced with the descriptions, the salient features of the development of Mughal architecture are discussed admirably, and their relevance to the architectural elements of the Taj comes across sharply. The role of architects, calligraphers, and other craftsmen associated with Islamic architecture is discussed in a separate chapter, and the documentation of masonry marks engraved along the banks of the Yamuna river is highly informative. Then follows an analysis related to the time taken for the construction of the complex, and this is based on the information found in the inscriptions.

It is obvious that imperial structures such as the Taj could not have been put up with locally available materials alone. It is worth recalling that the building was actually constructed with sandstone and then a marble veneer with intricate inlay work was provided. Thus, while the brick, lime, sandstone and the bulk of the other construction materials were obtained from local sources, the marble and stones required for inlay works were procured from faraway places. In addition to all this information, the author gives the physical and chemical properties of the materials used in the structure.

Scientific analyses

It is to the credit of the author that he has brought to light the results of several scientific studies and analyses, which would otherwise have remained in the cupboards of the institutions concerned. They include: the petrologic study to identify the elements present in the marble; studies relating to the pattern of crack formation, porosity, the presence of soluble salts in the marble, and the absorbing capacity; and analyses of dust accumulation on the surface of the Taj Mahal, soil formation below the monument, and so on. These are an eloquent testimony to the government's scientific approach to conservation-related issues. Perhaps the best part of the information is tucked away in the series of appendices that list the major conservation efforts chronologically.

Overall, the book is a veritable goldmine of information on the Taj Mahal and it speaks of the hard and sustained effort Dayalan has taken in gaining access to the archival records of several institutions, including the Archaeological Survey of India. It is indeed a valuable addition to the available literature on monument conservation. One of the major complaints heard in international forums is that there is little documentation on India's conservation efforts, particularly in respect of its World Heritage Sites.

A model log book of the world heritage site, this publication is bound to blunt that criticism at least to some extent.

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