Yogi Should Learn From Angkor Wat and Play up Taj’s Economic Value
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s visit to the Taj Mahal, amidst controversial statements by BJP leaders against the iconic monument, saw him symbolically ‘clean’ a spot left dirty, as part of promoting the Swachh Bharat movement. This, of course, is an eyewash, after some Hindu Yuva Vahini activists attempted to chant Shiv Chalisa inside the Taj Mahal and called the monument ‘Tejo Mahalay’.
The unfortunate attempt to communalise the Taj undercuts Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of India as ‘incredible’, ‘smart’, and much more.
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Taj Linked With Cultural Heritage
It reflects a knack for neglecting cultural economics and an imbalance in sustainable development, related not just to a monument but to an entire heritage ecosystem, of which the Taj Mahal is a part of. The identity of a heritage building is dynamic and changes within the context of the ecosystem in which it thrives.
To begin with, the structure was established as a rauza or a shrine-tomb, and when the Mughals transferred their capital from Agra to Delhi, local communities got an opportunity to interact with the Taj.
The structure was a seminal part of an ecosystem comprising the heritage of the Yamuna on one side and the bazaar of Tajganj on the other. Due to constant movement because of the river and the township, there was an integral participation of the dwellers of Agra with the heritage-scape surrounding the site.
From a National Monument to Wonders of the World
The Taj Mahal is not just a tangible structure, with surrounding gardens and buildings, but is also linked with the intangible living heritage. It’s a culture that embodies traditional skills (crafts, performative arts, wrestling, cuisine), along with festivals such as tairaki ka mela (swimming festival) and colourful markets in Tajganj and 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 tourism commerce, has created a disjunction between the monument and 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 assumed mythic proportions, but has been cut off from the ecosystem that it was once 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 association of its name with commercial products such as tea, hotel chains, and much more.
Marginalisation of Literary and Musical Heritage
The isolation of the site heritage-scape was visually and experientially enhanced by the manner in which the state government created and developed tourism.
Much of Agra’s heritage and the vibrant mandis, the city’s cosmopolitanism as seen in the mohallas, havelis and vast Catholic settlements dating from Akbar’s time, and its literary and musical heritage have been marginalised. In fact, even the imposing Sikandra, the tomb of the Great Akbar, is omitted from the tourist’s list after the Yamuna expressway was laid.
In contrast, one sees the example of Angkor Wat, and how the Cambodians have created a successful economic value from the entire heritage ecosystem surrounding that magnificent structure. This strategic tourism journey was undertaken as part of rebuilding the country after the traumatic experience of Pol Pot’s (Cambodia) genocide.
Taking a Cue from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat
At present, 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-genocide to reclaim skills and narratives related to the Khmer culture.
The circus provides scintillating shows over dinner in most hotels for tourists ranging from back-packers to high-end travellers. This has enabled the Phare Circus to provide employment for its artists, to run a school, create a $1.9 million creative industry and reclaim to conserve the heritage of the Khmer culture.
Reverting to the Taj, the first important fact remains that it is a money-spinner. The visit by Yogi, who laid the foundation stone for a tourist pathway connecting the two world heritage sites, the Taj and the Agra Fort, along with the proposed Rs 370-crore development plan for the city and an international airport, will hopefully not only counter recent attempts to communalise the entity of the Taj Mahal, but address the economic value that can evolve by asserting that the entire cultural heritage-scape is a neutral national entity.
At the same time, the media must stop giving credence to divisive/attention-seeking voices. The UP government must sincerely work to execute the development not only of the Taj, but the entire cultural heritage ecosystem so we are able to harness the cultural economics of a great heritage-scape.
(Dr Navina Jafa is the Vice President, Centre for New Perspectives. She can be reached @navinajafa. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. )