The conservation of the 363-year-old Taj Mahal — the jewel among Indian monuments and one of the most visited world heritage sites — has yet again come under a cloud following reports of structural instability. Doubts have been raised about the strength of its foundation, and the Supreme Court, after taking suo motu notice of the reports, has directed the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to investigate the matter. The government's reply that the Taj Mahal is “stable in plan and also elevation” is partly reassuring. However, it would be unfortunate if the issue were allowed to rest with this, since the longevity of the monument is not the only concern. What the recent controversy spotlights is the need for transparency in heritage management, and the efforts needed to achieve excellence in conservation. The Taj Mahal is precious not only because it is a one-monument industry that attracts 3.5 million visitors every year. This ‘illumined tomb' built over 17 years by Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor, with its picture-perfect geometry, exquisitely ornamented facades, and innovative Mughal gardens, is an exemplar of Indian design and craftsmanship. Its history and archaeology are yet to be fully uncovered.
Given the Taj Mahal's river-front location and the periodic fluctuation in water levels, continuous monitoring of the structure is imperative. In the past, the ASI often consulted premier institutions such as the Central Building Research Institute, Roorkee. However, it appears that the most recent of the structural studies was conducted about six years ago. Without waiting for any court directive or public pressure, investigations must be updated regularly, and the findings published. This is the way to enhance conservation. Attention thus far has been mostly on the buildings, and not on the gardens around, which are integral to the design of the monument. It has been remarked by a scholar that “what we have today in the gardens of the Taj Mahal is a post-colonial interpretation of a colonial intervention in a Mughal garden.” What is needed is a sensitive recreation of the original landscape based on a careful archaeobotanical survey. In addition, even if a fully functional restoration of the water works system that was originally designed to support the Mughal gardens is not possible, the physical structures should be conserved and presented. For this purpose, the ASI, which is spread thin, would do well to seek counsel and collaboration from the best expertise, wherever it is available. In this 150th year of the ASI's establishment, there is no excuse for not raising the conservation of India's most celebrated heritage site to the highest international standards.