Offbeat: Here’s to the many undiscovered stars in India

No one who has seen the Taj Mahal in Agra can claim to be unmoved by it. The architect obviously had a deep insight into the man who commissioned it–not only a bereaved husband but the most successful and extravagant Emperor of his time, Shahjehan–for the Taj Mahal is heartbreakingly melancholic yet unbelievably magnificent.

Those who produced the UP Tourism booklet may have left the Taj Mahal out to curry favour with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, given his alleged comment that it did not “reflect Indian culture. But India’s single minded focus on the Taj—awesome as it is—has led to skewed priorities and resultant neglect of India’s wider tourism potential.

The sheer glory of Empress Mumtaz Mahal’s pristine white marble mausoleum— where her husband was also later laid to rest—puts to shade many other architectural wonders that India abounds in. That it is but a short drive away from Delhi also makes it more accessible than some of the other monuments that deserve limelight and admiration.

Before Kerala’s wellness destinations and Rajasthan’s palaces took off as tourism hotspots, it almost seemed as if our vast country had nothing to offer except the Taj Mahal and the attractions of Delhi. That’s obviously not true, but the lion’s of conservation and development funds, both central and state, are routinely funnelled to the Taj.

Far from being “neglected”–exclusion of a centrally-tended monument from UP Tourism’s booklet hardly occasions this hyperbole—Taj is probably over-exposed. The heavy presence of touts, lack of ancillary facilities to back up just a tour of the monument, leaves many feeling dissatisfied with the “experience” despite Taj’s superlative beauty.

For some years now, footfalls at Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi have skyrocketed thanks to the painstaking restoration, conservation and development of the area by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. It is still way behind the Taj in revenues (Rs 7 crore to Rs 25 crore) but its success shows that “lesser” monuments have huge tourism potential if properly upgraded.

The outrage over the booklet omission led UP government to reiterate that huge amounts are still being spent on the Taj and its environs. That begs another question, especially after the Humayun Tomb’s example: should we still depend solely on government funds and agencies to do these tasks? Is it not time for more holistic approaches?

Apart from roping in others to improve the Taj experience via an integrated development of the area and community around it, identifying, restoring, revamping and promoting other places that can promise comparable (if not similar) experiences is also needed. More tourists and revenues for more regions of India is not an unfair goal.

India has 36 Unesco World Heritage Sites that includes –besides the Taj Mahal and other Mughal monuments in and around Agra—the Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta Caves, Sanchi, Pattadakkal, Brihadeeshwara Temple, Nalanda, Rani Ka Vaav, hill forts of Rajasthan and more. All are amazing and deserve their of care, appreciation and visitors.

There are many “unlisted” ones too. Like Rakhigarhi in Haryana, the largest city of the Indus Valley (or Saraswati) Civilisation found to date—far larger than MohenjoDaro or Harappa. But only about 40% of the site (unearthed in the 1960s) is “protected” by the Archaeological Survey of India, that too inadequately. And there’s no museum or visitor centre yet.

But an incredible 127 more such sites have been identified in Haryana alone, including Bhirrana, that pushes this civilisation’s antiquity to over 9,000 years! Millions flock to ancient Egyptian monuments, not to mention Greek and Roman ones. How many tourists could India’s comparable antiquities can draw in, if properly preserved and highlighted?

Aurangabad and its environs rival Agra when it comes to sheer tourism potential. Besides the Ajanta Caves World Heritage site, it has the tombs of Aurangzeb and the Ethiopian general Malik Ambar, sufi saints’ graves, Mohammed bin Tughlaq’s Daulatabad fort, the “poor man’s Taj” or Bibi ka Maqbara and more. But it remains under-marketed.

Taj Mahal undoubtedly deserves to be India’s star tourism draw. But we must expand our tourism mantra. From prehistoric sites and ancient temples to unparalleled Buddhist pilgrimage circuits and exquisite medieval examples like the Sidi Sayyid Mosque’s jaali window, we have a treasure trove to offer. Let’s not shortchange ourselves or our atithis.