NEW DELHI – In recent years, the Taj Mahal, India’s iconic monument to eternal love, has taken a beating. Its attendance figures are down. Air pollution is slowly turning its ethereal white marble yellow.
And now, to make matters worse, some in India feel that a staunch Hindu nationalist government recently elected in the Taj’s home state of Uttar Pradesh is starving the world heritage site of funds and support because it was built by Muslim invaders.
The state’s new chief minister, the saffron-robed Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath, set the tone early on when he lamented at a rally that tiny models of the Taj Mahal are often given to visiting foreign dignitaries, saying the monument “does not reflect Indian culture.”
The Taj, the country’s biggest tourism draw, was not allotted any cultural heritage funds in the state budget for the coming year. And in a blow that provoked yelps of protest from India’s opposition party, the monument was omitted from the state’s official tourism brochure last week.
Indian National Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi likened a tourism brochure without the Taj Mahal to a Hamlet-less Hamlet.
“If it is a booklet on tourism and it excludes Taj Mahal, at one level it is a joke and at another level it is tragic. It is like saying we will have ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince of Denmark,” Singhvi told reporters Monday. He called the omission “a clear religious bias which is completely misplaced.”
Adityanath’s government countered criticism by saying that the state, supported by funds from the World Bank, had slated $22 million to the monument for new gates, beautification and a multilevel parking structure.
“The Taj Mahal is the seventh wonder of the world. It has always been a priority not only for Uttar Pradesh but for the entire country of India,” said Awanish Awasthi, Adityanath’s principal secretary. “It will always be central to all our tourism policy but there were some other new projects we wanted to feature.”
The soaring white marble mausoleum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and is considered one of the finest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture. India’s famed poet Rabindranath Tagore called it “one tear-drop . . . on the cheek of time.”
The Taj Mahal has long been one of India’s prime tourist draws for foreign visitors, but its tourist numbers have dropped steadily since 2012, despite the opening of a modern highway that can shoot tour buses there from the nation’s capital, New Delhi, in under three hours.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, 480,000 tourists visited the mausoleum in 2015, a 35 percent drop from the 743,000 foreign tourists who visited there in 2012. Even with domestic tourists, the figure dropped by almost 113,400 from 2012 to 2015, officials say.
Tourism officials have given varying reasons for the decline, including the economy, lack of infrastructure, and security concerns in the fallout of a well-publicized gang rape in New Delhi.
Golden State Warriors player Kevin Durant sparked controversy when he described the poor conditions around the Taj Mahal in blunt terms after a visit there this summer while on an official National Basketball Association tour.
“As I was driving up to the Taj Mahal, like I said, I thought that this would be holy ground, super protected, very very clean. And as I’m driving up, it’s like, (expletive), this used to remind me of some neighborhoods I would ride through as a kid,” he told the Athletic website. “Mud in the middle of the street, houses were not finished, but there were people living in them. No doors. No windows. The cows in the street, stray dogs and then, boom, Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world. It’s like holy (expletive), this was built 500 years ago and everyone comes here. It’s just an eye-opener.”
Durant later apologized for his remarks on Twitter.
Tourism officials in the Uttar Pradesh city of Agra, where the Taj is located, said that the hint that the monument may be neglected by the current administration in favor of Hindu religious sites was unfortunate, given its needs.
“The current state government is not supporting Agra as a tourist destination because of its Mughal monuments. Money for tourism development has not been announced. Their focus is on religious tourism,” said Rajiv Saxena, secretary of the Tourism Guild of Agra.
The Adityanath government has focused on promoting places such as the ancient city of Varanasi, a site for Hindu pilgrims, and Gorakhpur, where he is the chief priest of a large temple, critics have said. The previous state government had launched plans for a Mughal museum and an orientation center at the site, but it is unclear whether those will be fully funded going forward, Saxena said.
“Government programs have to be backed by the annual budget. If there is no allocation in the budget, it will die a fast death,” he said.