Published in the QUINT: https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/yogi-adityanath-visits-taj-mahal-to-develop-tourism
UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s visit to the Taj Mahal amidst controversial statements by members of the BJP against iconic monument saw him symbolically ‘clean’ a spot left dirty for the photo opportunity as part of promoting swachh Bharat. The unfortunate attempt to communalize the biggest Cultural Heritage Economic ticket undercuts PM Modi’s vision of the surging rocket ‘India’ as Incredible, Smart, and much more. Uncapacious, attention seeking and provocative remarks from these commanders are as distracting as tweets of another leader elsewhere.
Hypothetically speaking, if one does get swayed by currents of flowing divisive politics and the Wonder of the World is pulled down then what is central disjunction we see apart from drawing parallels with the fallen Bamiyan Buddha?
It reflects the lack of neglecting cultural economics and imbalance in sustainable development related not to a monument but to an entire heritagescape ecosystem of which the Taj Mahal is a part. The identity of a heritage building is dynamic and changes within the context of the ecosystem in which it lives.
To begin with, the structure was established as a rauza or a shrine-tomb, and when the Mughals transferred their capital to Delhi, local communities of and in the city interacted with the Taj. The structure was a seminal part of an ecosystem comprising of the river heritage of the Yamuna on one side and the bazaar of Tajganj on the other. Due to the constant human movement because of the river, and the township, there was an integral participation of the dwellers of the medieval town with the heritagescape surrounding the site.
As in other prominent Mughal buildings, the building of Taj is an example of intangible living heritage skills all of which are relevant by themselves and are the source of livelihood for several traditionally skilled communities and contribute to the commerce of the city.
The tangible heritagescape constituting the main structure, surrounding gardens and buildings went together with the intangible living heritage embodied in a canvas of traditional skills (crafts, performative arts, wrestling, cuisine), along with festivals such as tairaki ka mela (swimming festival) and colorful markets in Tajganj and till date even the fascinating heritage of art and photography associated with the Taj Mahal. The trajectory of the changing identity of the Taj Mahal, along with the commerce of tourism has created a disjunction between the Taj and the City.
The upward mobility of the Taj in the hierarchy of heritage sites went parallel to its isolation from the city. Beginning with its status first as a National Monument, then as a world heritage site and finally a wonder of the world, the Taj has become bigger than and has been cut off from the ecosystem that it was a part of. The Taj is not only a part of a great historic city and a cultural region it is also seen as a symbol of refinement and perfection. This is exemplified by the use of its name in commercial products such as Tea, hotel chains and much more.
The isolation of the site heritagescape was visually and experientially enhanced by the manner in which the government created and developed tourism. Either visitors can come and go for a day without really having to stay in Agra, or if they do, they can do so without being in the city.
Much of the heritage of Agra covering its commerce and vibrant ‘Mandis ‘, it’s cosmopolitanism as seen in the mohallas, havelis and vast catholic settlement dating from Akbar‘s time, it’s literary and musical heritage has been marginalised. In fact, even the imposing Sikandra, the tomb of the Great Abkar is omitted from the tourist’s list after the coming of the Yamuna Expressway.
In contrast, one sees the example of Angkor Vat, and how the Cambodians have created a successful economic value of and from the entire heritage ecosystem surrounding the world heritage site. This strategic tourism journey was constructed as part of rebuilding the country after a traumatic experience of genocide. Presently, not only are tourists compelled to stay at least one night in Angkor, but most hotels have a tie-up with the immensely successful Phare Circus which began as part of the reconstruction post the genocide to reclaim cultural skills and narratives related to the Khmer culture. The circus provides scintillating shows over dinner in most hotels for tourists ranging from bag packers to high-end travellers. This has enabled the Phare circus to provide employment for its artists on all 365 days of the year, to run a school, create a 1.9 million dollar creative industry and reclaim to conserve the heritage of the Khmer culture.
Reverting to the Taj, the first important fact remains that as an entity it is a money-spinning wheel. The visit by the chief minister who is expected to launch a tourist pathway connecting the two world heritage sites Taj and Agra Fort, along with the proposed 370 Cr development plan for the city and an international airport will hopefully not only counter the recent attempts to communalize the entity of the Taj Mahal but move to address the opportunity and economic value that can evolve by the assertion of a neutral space for the cultural and traditional landscape, and secondly work to create a holistic development approach towards not just the Taj, but the entire cultural heritage ecosystem so that there is a tangible illustration of income generation possibilities and sustainable responsible tourism.