The Sinking Wonder of the World

Taj Mahal

When given the option to choose any engineering-related topic for my CCOM206 research paper, I was inclined to write about Taj Mahal—one of the Seven Wonders of the World—since it is located in my homeland, India. My trip to Taj Mahal a decade ago changed my life in ways more than I could have imagined. Though I may not be a desi by personal choice, I am still Indian at heart. I want future generations to also have their breath taken away by the beauty of Taj Mahal, just as mine was when I first saw it.

The first thought that crosses one’s mind when thinking of India is likely the well-known Taj Mahal. This marble-clad mausoleum is considered one of the finest example of Mughal architecture in India. It was built to mark the passionate love of Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved queen Mumtaj Mahal, after her sudden and tragic death.There is perhaps no better monument which is solely dedicated to love. Every year, over 3 million people come to visit this sacred symbol of love in search of inspiration, and they leave with a warm feeling of awe and admiration.

“A teardrop on the cheek of time” were the words of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore on Taj Mahal’s flawless symmetry and elegance. In 1983, Taj Mahal achieved the status of an UNESCO World Heritage Site. At that time, it was described as a “universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”; even so, proper care has not been taken to preserve this monument.

Taj Mahal is an engineering marvel of its own kind. The construction of Taj Mahal represented the biggest technical challenge to be overcome by the Mughal builders of that era. As Shah Jahan was adamant about building this monument on the banks of the river Yamuna, the architects and engineers came up with a novel strategy known as “well foundation”. In order to support the considerable load resulting from the mausoleum, the white stone monument was built on hundreds of masonry cylindrical columns sunk into the ground close together. These wells were filled with rubble, iron and mortar—so they essentially acted as augured piles—and were reinforced with ebony wheels at regular intervals along their lengths. Ebony was used, as it is dense enough to sink in water and also has an infinite life-time in water.

Recently, a startling discovery has taken over the front page of all newspapers in India—Taj Mahal, the famous epitome of love, is starting to sink. The news that Taj Mahal is going to collapse in the next five years came during its 350th anniversary celebration. Shah Jahan is not to be blamed because when he commissioned to build Taj Mahal, he got everything right: from the design, to its science. He neither stinted on the ebony which props up the Taj, nor did he anticipate the Yamuna going dry. But even the finest ebony in the world needs a steady stream of moisture to ensure it does not expand or contract, both of which pose a grave threat to the structure.

In the past decade or so, the ‘perennial’ river has been completely drying up in the summer months in Agra, posing a potent threat to India’s most famous monument. Experts say a dry Yamuna could play havoc with the Taj’s foundation, making a solid marble love story wobbly at the base. The pressure of the river flowing by Taj has kept the building erect. But the building is no longer getting enough support due to the evaporating Yamuna River, and cracks have started to appear on Taj’s veneering marble slabs. Also, research shows that the south-west minaret has tilted by about 8.5 inches—this is quite a lot!

Taj Mahal is part and parcel of India’s identity and as such, Taj must be preserved. River restoration projects such as the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) have been implemented but not yet found to be effective. As the situation grows increasingly dire, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) should take immediate measures to intervene. Otherwise, we might as well say goodbye to this three–and-a-half centuries-old monument.