Now 350, the Taj Mahal still elicits wow and awe

Protective of their architectural treasure, Indians differ over how to best celebrate - and protect - the beauty of the majestic Taj Mahal.

The experience of first seeing the Taj Mahal has entranced visitors for 350 years now, an anniversary that began last month and will be marked with special events over the next half year.

But for Indians who have grown inured to the Taj's charms - the enormous white marble domes and minarets, the symmetry, grace, and sheer majesty - the fete has so far brought little reflection on the noble ideals of love and beauty that inspired bereaved emperor Shah Jahan to build the Taj as a tomb for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Instead, reports at the initial gala focused on the hundreds of VIPs and celebrities in attendance. And a flap over opening the Taj at night to visitors has made big news.

What's breathtaking to holidaymakers tends to elicit yawns from the locals. "Indians normally come to take their kids to look at the monument," says Utkarsh Faujdar, until recently a manager of a luxury hotel in Agra. "The 'wow' factor is more for the foreigners."

But indifference quickly changes to indignation the moment Indians perceive a threat to the country's best-known symbol. Controversy has swirled for most of the past decade around how to save the marble edifices from the ravages of air pollution. Scores of factories have been forced to close down in and around Agra, a dusty industrial town on the banks of the Yamuna River that is the unlikely home to the world's greatest monument to love. Residents doubt the closures have done much to improve air quality, and say officials have ignored other polluters, most notably nearby hotels that run diesel generators.

Then howls of protest erupted when New Age musician Yanni planned a concert across the river bank a few years ago. A group of architects said the pop-music performance would violate the spirit of the structure once described by poet Rabindranath Tagore as "a teardrop on the cheek of time." Politicians argued that a concert there by a foreigner would be "against Indian culture." The concert went ahead anyway.

Earlier this year, a scandal came to light when the government of Uttar Pradesh, the state in which the Taj resides, allowed construction to begin on a shopping complex in full view of the monument and another big tourist attraction, the Agra Fort. Investigators are looking into how the project was approved without the permission of federal authorities.

Even the Taj's 350th-birthday celebrations have been overshadowed by an apparent lack of coordination between India's tourism ministry and the Uttar Pradesh government. Tour operators say they are in the dark about upcoming events.

Yet despite the controversies; despite harassment by vendors, guides, and taxi drivers; and despite the inescapable filth and squalor of Agra, the Taj is far and away India's most popular tourist attraction. More than 2 million travelers visit the site each year.

It is easy to see why. In this place of quiet precision, complete with manicured lawns and perfectly aligned reflecting pools, the noise and choking fumes of the narrow Taj Gunj byways just outside seem to melt away.

"For me, it's one of the most beautiful buildings in the world," Maj Britt Gassby, a spry 70-year-old Swede, told me on my first visit here eight years ago. "It's a symbol for me. One part of my heart, I think."

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