Past perfect

While visitors to the Sistine Chapel will be vacuum cleaned, India's monuments continue to languish

Next year, as the great unwashed step through the doors of the Sistine Chapel, a subtle change will be worked upon them. A mighty vacuum cleaner will suck the dust out of their clothes and the sweat out of their pores. A shoe-cleaning carpet will lift the grime from their feet. A chill will descend on them. The chapel, which turned 500 this year, receives 5 million visitors a year. "Several kilos" of dust, hair and man-made fibre are said to have been removed from the chapel's famous frescoes at the last major cleaning. An irate art critic's proposal to limit the number of visitors has been rejected. But if the chapel is to be kept intact, the people must be "dusted, cleaned and chilled".

India's crumbling monuments present a tragic contrast. The culture of conservation and restoration has been slow to take root here and still remains woefully inadequate, even in the best preserved monuments. Built on the banks of the Yamuna and constantly affected by fluctuating water levels, the Taj Mahal, which receives 3.5 million visitors a year, is threatened by structural instability, and government efforts to curb pollution in the surrounding areas are failing. The frescos on the diwan-i-khas and the diwan-i-am of Mughal forts are long gone. The golden fort at Jaisalmer is slowly sinking back into the desert, its foundations reportedly weakened by a hastily constructed sewage system and high rainfall in recent years.

Coated in spittle and grime, the debris of the past in modern Indian cities is gradually being crowded out by human presence. As another year wanes, it comes closer to disappearing without a trace. Yet to live without history is to lose a vital part of a society's collective memory. In the Sistine Chapel, human presence must surrender to the past for a moment. All the resources and technology of modern life are used to preserve it. There could not be a more fitting tribute to the past.

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