The Taj Mahal in Agra has long been rated as one of the world's beautiful creations. Photo: iStock
The Taj Mahal in Agra has long been rated as one of the world's beautiful creations. Photo: iStock

The Taj Majal – recognized as one of the seven new wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site – is also India’s largest money spinner from tourism by far. But recent attacks by lawmakers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) questioning the monument’s legacy now threatens to undermine the livelihood of thousands and dent income from tourism.

The Taj Mahal is the most visited monument in India, according to official data from government sources. The Mughal era mausoleum attracts six to seven million visitors annually, with nearly 10% from abroad.

The Taj Mahal is a cash cow. Among all monuments in the country, it generates the most revenue – about Rs 210 million annually from entry fees. Thanks to the Taj, the city of Agra’s annual turnover from tourism reaches about Rs 10 billion, Mahatim Singh, secretary of the Tourism Guild of Agra (TGA) said.

Four other monuments from the Mughal era in and around Delhi and Agra also attract high numbers of tourists, according to official statistics. The annual collection at the Agra Fort, a distant second to the Taj Mahal, is around Rs 100 million. This is followed by the Qutub Minar in Delhi, also at Rs 100 million, Mughal emperor Humayun’s tomb at Rs 7o million and the Red Fort in Agra, built by the Emperor Akbar at  Rs 6o million. The top 20 monuments collected Rs 800 million in 2014-15.

Ironically, the state government of Uttar Pradesh, now ruled by the BJP, has a Hindutva hardliner as Chief Minister, who dropped the Taj Mahal from its official tourism brochure earlier this year. Other members of the party also claim that the Muslim rulers who built these famous architectural sites were “destroyers and traitors”, and often note the (illegal) demolition of the cu in 1990 by mobs led by senior BJP leaders.

The backbone of tourism in Agra

Agra’s economy is mainly dependent on tourism and tourism-based industries such as garments, leather, handicrafts and stone carving, but this obvious fact seems to have escaped the government and members of the ruling party. As Mahatim Singh points out, “A dozen five-star hotels, 30 four-three star hotels and 50 one-two star hotels and 500 restaurants constitute the backbone of this industry.” Indeed, a day’s visit by a foreign tourist provides employment for 10 to 12 people, experts say.

About 5,000 people are directly and 20,000 people indirectly employed in the tourism sector, the TGA estimates. There are also ancillary businesses and industries that thrive on tourism. Handicrafts, leather products and garments are among the most sought after by tourists who arrive in Agra every day to view the Taj Mahal.

“Half of Agra’s population is directly or indirectly dependent on tourism and allied businesses. Agra is thriving and surviving because of the Mughal emperors’ love of architecture,” said Rajiv Tiwari, president of the city’s Federation of Travel Associations. The monument employs around 120 people, including the e-ticketing staff and laborers, says Ankit Namdev, a conservation assistant with the Archaeological Survey of India (Taj Mahal sub-circle). The housekeeping is outsourced.

While the political jostling and attacks on the Taj Mahal’s legacy has not had a major impact on visitor numbers so far, the lack of budgetary support might have consequences later. Hospitality and travel sector observers also noted that the demonetization announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 8 last year, hit them hard. “Our business has been affected due to demonetization,” TGA’s Singh said.

He said the number of travelers to Agra took a sharp dip after the demonetization was announced. “There has been a considerable decline in Taj tourism since last November. Lack of adequate currency conversion centers restrained foreign tourists in the year-end. The impact of demonetization is still visible,” Singh claimed.

Tourist numbers down in 2016

In 2016, over 6.2 million tourists came to see the Taj Mahal – down from 6.5 million in 2015, according to state government statistics. The number of foreign tourists went up marginally though – from 570,000 in 2015 to 590,000 in 2016. However, this number seems small when you consider that about eight million foreign tourists visit India each year.

The TGA also claims that the recently implemented Goods and Services Tax (GST) has further affected the sector. “Charges for hotels, travel and goods have gone up leading to negative sentiments. Many people are taking advantage of the confusion as well. These factors have led to a decline in our revenue,” Singh said.

The Taj Mahal became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 and was cited as “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage.” And historians say although Agra’s heritage is linked to the Mughal dynasty, other rulers also contributed to it. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan marked the zenith of Mughal architecture when he built the Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal from 1631 to 1653.

As many as 28 different varieties of semi-precious and precious stones were used to adorn the Taj with exquisite inlay work. Passages from the Koran have been used as decorative elements throughout the complex, according to the Archaeological Survey of India.

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