No end to eyesores at India’s Taj Mahal as restoration work drags on

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Restoration teams use scaffolding for restoration works at the Taj Mahal facade, blocking views of the ornate Islamic carvings engraved on its walls. (AFP)
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The number of local tourists is also being capped to 40,000 a day in a bid to reduce wear and tear on the monument to love. (AFP)
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Experts warn that iron scaffolding risks leaving irrevocable scars on the fine marble. (AFP)
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Building restoration at India’s most popular tourist attraction is now into its fourth year, with work yet to even begin on its imposing dome. (AFP)
Updated 22 January 2018
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No end to eyesores at India’s Taj Mahal as restoration work drags on

AGRA, India: Tourist Muskan Mahuwakar pictured the Taj Mahal as a dazzling vision of symmetry and beauty but upon reaching the monument, she — like thousands of other visitors — was disappointed to find it covered in scaffolding, its once white marble now yellowing due to pollution.
Building restoration at India’s most popular tourist attraction is now into its fourth year, with work yet to even begin on its imposing dome.
“It’s disappointing not to get a perfect frame of this immaculate structure,” Mahuwakar, a history student, said on her first visit to the Taj, as nearby cleaners armed with colorful plastic buckets and large mops desperately tried to scrub some luster back into the stained stone.
Other restoration teams scale the facade, blocking views to the ornate Islamic carvings engraved on its walls. The interruption to the serenity of visiting one of the seven modern wonders of the world.
“The repair has been going on for so long. Of course, old monuments need to be conserved, but we must find solutions that are quick and effective,” Mahuwakar said, casting a dejected look at the scaffolding around.
Pollution and old age are taking their toll on the 17th century mausoleum, nestled on the south bank of the Yamuna river in Agra, but critics warn that even the options authorities are using to try to fix, may be exacerbating the problem.
Mudpacks have been applied in stages to draw out stains but critics say the process is as damaging as bleaching the fine stone.
Authorities reject this, but admit they are concerned about how to proceed with handling the fragile central dome.
There are fears this inevitable work risks damaging the unmistakable feature of the Taj and will put off tourists.
Experts warn that iron scaffolding risks leaving irrevocable scars on the fine marble. But bamboo frames are inadequate for such heights, leaving few options for those charged with executing the daunting task.
“We have to clean the dome, but the challenge is how to erect the scaffolding,” Bhuvan Vikrama, the government archaeologist overseeing restoration efforts, said.
“The structure is almost 400 years old, so we can’t put any extra load on it. In righting the wrong, we should not wrong the right.”
It remains unclear when work will begin or for how long the central dome will be encased in scaffolding.
Fodor’s Travel, a publisher of tourism guidebooks, has advised readers to avoid the Taj until at least 2019 lest visitors be disappointed.
The number of local tourists is also being capped to 40,000 a day in a bid to reduce wear and tear on the monument to love, which was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth in 1631.Currently daily visitor numbers average 10,000-15,000 but can be much higher at weekends, going up to around 70,000. According to government figures, nearly 6.5 million people — mainly from India — visited the historic complex in 2016.
Anyone wanting to see the main crypt, which houses marble graves inlaid with semi-precious stones, will also have to pay for a pricier ticket.
But critics warn that restoration is only half the solution, pointing to the industrial factories across the river that near continuously belch out noxious fumes, leaving the air thick with smog.
This toxic haze from this and from dung and garbage burning in and around Agra is responsible for discoloring the Taj, experts say.
Efforts to curb these pollutants, including banning motor vehicles within 500 meters of the building, have failed to clear up the air.
M C Mehta, a lawyer, said his battles in court to shift polluting industries — including a huge crematorium — had fallen on deaf ears.
“No one wants to take hard decisions,” Mehta said.
“The Taj used to be surrounded by lush greenery, but now there is nothing. Taj is in the last stage of cancer. It is dying, it is gasping for breath.”


The mussels from Brussels: 48 hours in Belgium’s classy capital

City Square in Brussels. (Shutterstock)
Updated 05 November 2018
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The mussels from Brussels: 48 hours in Belgium’s classy capital

  • A quick guide to the Belgian capital, Brussels
  • Not the first destination that comes to mind for a European mini-break, but Brussels turned out to be quite the surprise

LONDON: It’s not the first destination that comes to mind for a European mini-break, but Brussels turned out to be quite the surprise.
With a couple of days to spare in the UK, my travel partner and I decided to find the quickest — and most affordable — trip, and our search took us to the Belgian capital.
Tickets and hotel booked, we jetted off with little expectations except wanting to find the perfect waffle.
Landing in Brussels at noon, we headed straight to our hotel to drop off our bags, and were delighted it was a 12-minute drive from the airport. Our temporary home of choice was the ultra-affordable ($96 per night) Aloft Brussels Schuman in Place Jean Rey, a fuss-free four-star establishment that impressed with its laidback atmosphere and street-art-inspired rooms.

A main street in Brussels. (Shutterstock)

We began our sightseeing at the European Parliament Hemicycle — the main office of the members of the European Parliament. It certainly offered a great insight into the world’s largest transnational parliament’s role and powers. Entry is free, but you’ll need ID.
After that, we headed to one of the city’s most famous landmarks: Grand Place. Breathtakingly beautiful is an understatement; this UNESCO World Heritage Site — home to the city’s Town Hall and main museum — is so impressive it’s hard to take in its true scale.
A few blocks away is the Manneken Pis, a bronze statue that’s too cheeky to feature a picture of, but is so well-known we had to include it in our tour. The sculpture is said to be the best-known symbol of the people of Brussels, representing their “sense of humor and independence of mind.”
You could spend hours exploring this area. We stumbled upon Comic Strip Route, a trail featuring 50-odd colorful murals that represent the city’s comics heritage (Brussels is the birthplace of The Smurfs and Tintin, among others).

It was time to find a snack, and during our walk we passed by a tearoom that had a long queue outside. Surely a good sign? Turns out we were at Maison Dandoy, a Belgian institution dating back to 1829, known for its speculoos and waffles.
It was worth the wait. We had the best waffle we’ve ever eaten: freshly cooked, crispy on the outside, and fluffy on the inside. The addition of speculoos-flavoured ice-cream was delightful.
Later we made a final stop at Frit Flagey for a cone of Belgian frites — another oh-so-tasty local delicacy.

On our second day, we headed to the Atomium, an iconic building built in 1958 and renovated at a cost of €26 million in 2006. It’s certainly peculiar; but it’s the only place that offers a 360-degree view of Brussels. Strike it lucky with clear skies, and you’ll get a great experience.
Next to it is the mildly amusing Mini-Europe, a park that displays, you guessed it, mini replicas of monuments in the European Union, at a scale of 1:25. Cool spots were Big Ben — let’s face it, it will probably be demolished post-Brexit next year — and a real piece of the Berlin Wall.
A short walk away is the Brussels Expo. We came across a “Star Wars: Identities” exhibition that appealed to our inner nerd. Upcoming events include “Walking with Dinosaurs” and the Brussels Motor Show.
With the end of our trip fast approaching, there was just time for an early dinner. We saved the best dining experience to last. Mussels are a must-have, and we couldn’t have found a better place than Le Zinneke, a charming bistro serving up over 69 mussel dishes. We opted for the signature Fisherman’s Style — a delightful pot served in a vegetable and herb mix, with a side of Belgian fries. Each pot contains over a kilogram of mussels and, although the friendly staff may advise you take one each, we’d suggest sharing.
Brussels and its friendly people were a pleasant surprise, and we’d definitely return. And with its most famous foods being waffles, chocolate, fries and mussels, it’s the perfect stop for a halal break.