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.”


Gili Lankanfushi: A gourmet getaway in the Maldives

Updated 19 May 2018
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Gili Lankanfushi: A gourmet getaway in the Maldives

  • This island resort is the perfect destination for foodies and sun-worshippers alike

DUBAI: The Maldives is one of those destinations that nature has bestowed with an embarrassment of riches. And what nature has given, numerous resorts have taken and perfected with their ultra-luxury offerings. Which is what makes choosing exactly where to go that much more difficult. And while each island has its own special charm, anyone seeking a gastronomic experience should look no further than Gili Lankanfushi.

This intimate resort, located a 20-minute speedboat ride away from Male airport in the north Male atoll, is home to just 45 over-water villas. Everything on the island ¬— and beyond, as several of the villas are perched on stilts offshore — from the villas to the restaurants and the spa, is done up in a rustic-chic style, making for a pared-back, but still luxury, setting.

The inviting villas, complete with direct access to the crystal clear lagoons; curated collection of activities including snorkeling and sunset cruises; and Insta-perfect spots — think idyllic hammocks swinging between drooping palms — are temptation enough for tourists, but it’s the gourmet offerings that make Gili Lankanfushi a must for gourmands. And with a sustainable ethos at its heart — much of the food is created using local fish, and produce from the resort’s own organic vegetable garden — you can feel good about yourself while you’re eating too much.

We’d recommend taking the Gili Tasting Journey as soon as possible after your arrival. It takes you through the island’s main dining destinations for a teaser of what each has to offer, through a mini course and beverage at each, led by the resident sommelier Fabrice Blazquez who colors the evening with enjoyable banter.

A typical evening could start with canapés at the over-water bar, the perfect sundowner spot, before moving on to the spectacular underground wine cellar, built around a tree trunk that washed up during the 2006 tsunami — a great example of how this sustainably minded resort works with the environment, rather than imposing on it. This intimate space boasts organic features and pebble floors (you’re provided heated foot pads, as everyone is expected to walk around barefoot around the island, in line with their ‘no news, no shoes’ policy) which, combined with the modernist glass and metal, make it feel as though you’re walking into an art installation.

Here you can try intricate creations such as octopus with mango salsa, and beetroot jelly with goat’s cheese mousse, after which you are led into the leafy surrounds of the organic vegetable garden. As the sunset casts a magical glow over the rustic wood ‘leaf table’ you can sample some traditional Maldivian smoked fish snacks.
You then make your way to Fini Foni, a cute ice-cream parlor which, for this tour, offers foie-gras macarons. The evening ends with sushi and sake at specialty Japanese restaurant By The Sea.

The breakfast offering, too, is superlative. And best enjoyed beachside. The morning buffet offers a range of regional delicacies, including Mas huni (tuna and coconut served with flatbread), while the a la carte menu features eggs to order — we’d recommend the Maldivian spicy omelet with tuna and curry leaves. Alternatively, keep it light and healthy with fruits, smoothies, and detoxifying spa beverages.

Personalization is key to the Gili Lankanfushi experience. Each guest’s stay is managed by a private butler, resulting in bespoke dining experiences. The island is dotted with picturesque spots perfect for romantic meals, whether a gazebo tucked away in the tropical jungle, a secluded slither of beach, the outdoor jungle cinema, or the tiny One Palm island just offshore. Pick your spot and a personal chef cooks up a three-course meal of your choice for a magical experience.

Or, if you fancy staying in and enjoying the plush décor of your villa, just order in and chill. Unusually for a resort, ordering in-villa doesn’t cost a premium. Try dinner on your upstairs terrace, after which, weather permitting, you can even sleep out under the stars.

And once the guilt sets in, there are plenty of water-based activities — diving, fishing, surfing, sailing, waterskiing — to help you work off a few pounds.