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Bangladesh: Bloggers unearth the fake Taj Mahal scam

The original Taj Mahal at Agra, India If you cannot visit the Taj Mahal at Agra (India) then the Taj Mahal will have to visit you in your home town.

Since the last few days, we have been reading a curious and interesting piece of news from Bangladesh. Apparently it was first reported by AFP and then quickly picked up by the MSM in Bangladesh, India and International markets (links 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 to name a few).

Bangladeshi Taj MahalThe news is this: a wealthy film producer in Bangladesh has constructed ‘an exact copy’ of Agra's legendary Taj Mahal in  Sonargaon, a small town 30km outside the capital Dhaka. Apparently the wealthy gentleman Ahsanullah Moni fell in love with the historic monument on his visits to Agra and decided to construct an exact replica of it in his country, to give his fellowmen a taste of the original, without having to make an expensive journey all the way to Agra.

According to what Mr. Moni has reported to the media (played back religiously by the media, in turn), it has taken him just over 5years (the original had taken over 20years to build) to create this life-size replica and that it has been built at a cost of 58mn USD. The MSM also reported that hundreds of workers and designers were used for this project (the original needed about 20,000 people) and as a mark of precise attention to detail, a team had actually gone to Agra and measured the original structure inch by inch. There were reports that in order to recreate the dazzling original, 160kg (353lb) of bronze, marble and granite was imported from Italy and diamonds were flown in from Belgium to be used in its construction.

Taj Mohol close shotThe lavishness of the description immediately created a buzz among the people and soon the replica drew the attention of the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, who expressed their irritation at having to deal with a ‘fake’ Taj created right under their nose. Interestingly, at a time when tension between neighbors is running high, the MSM soon ran hyped up reports about this reaction with strong lines such as ” Tensions between Bangladesh and India have escalated after it emerged a film director is constructing a life-size copy of the Taj Mahal”. There were write-ups about the “diplomatic fracas”, India's “anger” so on and so forth. These articles in turn drew comments from a section of Bangladeshi officialdom who felt that if they indeed did re-create the Taj, India had no right to create a storm as they felt that historic monuments could not be copyrighted.Only a few in the media, later reported that the Indian High Commission, after investigating the incident, had stated that it was unlikely that visitors would mistake one for the other and that the replica was unlikely to detract from the magnificence of the original.

While the MSM was having a field day, people in Bangladesh thronged in hundreds to have a look at this new wonder that had been brought to their door-step. Some Bangla bloggers too visited the site to check out what this brouhaha was all about. It was then that it was discovered that this entire hype was perhaps just a gimmick, a money making scam in the name of the Taj.

Blogger Jhorohaowa writes about his experience [bn]:

মদনপুর বাসস্টান্ড নেমে দেখি টেমপুওয়ালারা ’তাজমহল’ বলে চিল্লাইতেছে। কেউ ভাড়া চাচ্ছে ৩০/- টাকা, কেউ ৪০/- টাকা। আধঘন্টা টেম্পু দিয়ে চলার পর একগ্রামে এসে থামলাম। সামনে বিশাল জ্যাম আর হাজার হাজার মানুষ। সবাই তাজমহল দেখতে আসছে। অপেক্ষা না করে নেমে হাটা দিলাম। প্রায় দুই কিলো হাটার পর তাজমহল কম্পাউন্ডে আসলাম, প্রবেশ মুল্য ৫০/- টাকা। কোন ব্যাপার না, আগ্রা গেলে আরো খরচ হইতো। তাড়াতাড়ি টিকেট কেটে ভিড় ঠেলে ভিতরে প্রবেশ করলাম।তাজমহলের চেহারা দেইখা মুখটা অটোমেটিক হা হয়ে ’শালা’ শব্দটা যে কেমনে বের হয়ে আসলো বুঝবার পারি নাই। আমার ঢাকাইয়া বন্ধুটি মুখ আর আটকাইয়া রাখা গেলো না। সে গাইল শুরু করলো- (গালি)রা টয়লেটের টাইলস লাগাইছে, মালিক পক্ষের সব (গালি)’রা ভাগছে, একটারে ডাইকা আইনা যে পাবলিক গাইলাইবো সেই উপায় নাই, (গালি)রা এই ঈদের দিনে পাবলিকরে ’বাকরা’ টুপি লাগায় দিলো … ইত্যাদি ইত্যাদি।

At the Madanpur bus stand, we heard the tempo (motorized Rickshaw, a public transport) drivers yelling “Taj Mahal”. Some were demanding a fare of 30 Taka, others were asking for 40Taka. After travelling for 30 minutes by tempo we came to a village. The road ahead was packed with thousands of people who had come to see the “Taj Mahal”. We got down from the tempo and walked for about 2km and reached the “Taj Mahal” compound. The entry fee was 50Taka. Ok, we thought, a trip to the original would have been way more expensive. After buying the tickets we pushed through the crowd and entered the compound. After seeing the “Taj” we could not help the various abuses that escaped our lips. My friend from Dhaka was unstoppable. He said, “they have used toilet tiles, and now the owners have run away so that we cannot catch hold of them and give them a piece of our minds…on this day of Eid, they made such fools of us…” etc., etc.”

Jhorohaowa also writes that by inaugurating an incomplete, poorly designed construction with such media hype the promoters of the project  clearly betrayed their intention of making a quick buck during the Eid season.

Bibortonbadi , another blogger who visited the site was also very upset at falling prey to yellow journalism; he wrote in his blog [bn]:

কিছুই না দেখবার মত। শুভ্র তাজমহলের সোকলড রেপ্লিকা বানিয়েছে সাদার মাঝে নানা রঙ্গের টাইলস দিয়ে। সংবাদপত্রে কত কিছুই না পড়লাম। খরচ ৪০০ কোটি টাকা, ইতালি থেকে আনা মুল্যবান পাথর ও টাইলস্‌, বেলজিয়াম থেকে আনা ১৭২ টি হীরক খন্ড, গম্বুজের উপরে চারমন ওজনের ব্রোঞ্জ, কোথায় এসব??? ৪০০ কোটি টাকা কি পান্তা ভাত নাকি! নরমাল ইট-সিমেন্টের একটা স্ট্রাকচারের উপরে দেশী টাইলস্‌ (আমার বন্ধু বাড়ির কাজকর্ম ভাল বোঝে, তার মতে টাইলস গুলো দেশী) বসানো। এমন কি টাইলসের কাটাও ঠিক মত হয় নাই, আনাড়ি হাতের কাজ। এখনও ফিনিশিং সম্পূর্ণ হয় নাই। ইতালির পাথর যদি পরে বসাবার ইচ্ছাও থাকে তবে কোথায় বসাবে? দর্শনার্থিরা সবাই বিরক্ত এবং নিজেদের প্রতারিত ভাবছেন…প্রায় ১০ মিনিট দেখবার পরেই বুঝতে পারলাম আমাদের জন্য ভেতরে আর কিছুই নেই। বেরিয়ে হাটা ধরলাম। পথে অনান্য দর্শনার্থিদের সাথে কথা হল, সবার একই উত্তর “ভূয়া”।

There's nothing worth seeing. The so-called replica of the brilliant Taj has been made with colored tiles. I had read so many things in the newspapers – 400crores of Taka, valuable marble and tiles from Italy, 172 diamonds from Belgium, 160kgs of bronze on the dome…where is all of that? Is 400crores Taka such a little thing? Local tiles on a plain and simple brick structure…even the tiling work is that of an amateur…the structure is still incomplete. Even if after all this they want to put Italian marble where will they put it? All the visitors were upset and were feeling cheated. …After 10minutes we realised that there was nothing to see inside. We left. On the way back we spoke to other visitors and there was only one word going around — “what a scam!”

The blogger posts a video which shows people flocking to see the Taj and uttering their disappointment:

Prothom Bangla reflects the sentiments of the visitors describing Ahsanullah Moni’s effort [bn]:

পাগল হিন্দি সিনেমা নকল করতে করতে, মাথা আওলাইয়া গেছে। দেখছে। ভাল আয় রোজগার। এখন তাজ মহল নির্মান করছে।

পাঁজি যে টাকা খরচ করেচে, সেই টাকা যদি দেশের হত-দরিদ্র মানুষের উন্নয়নে কাজে লাগাত তাহলে হত গরীবের উপকার ।

“This guy has lost his head by producing copycat Hindi cinemas. He has seen that this brings good money. So he has built this (copycat) Taj Mahal.

If he would spend the millions he spent here in poor peoples cause that could bring good for the country.”

Bibortonbadi goes on to question the role of the MSM in aiding this scam with their hyped up reporting. He says [bn]:

অবাক লাগল এই যে দেশের শীর্ষ স্থানীয় পত্রিকা গুলো কিভাবে কোন রকম খোজ খবর ছাড়াই ৪০০ কোটি টাকার বিনিয়োগ, ১৭২ টি হীরক খন্ড, ইতালির টাইলস/পাথরের ভূয়া খবর ছাপালেন। ৪০০ কোটি টাকা কি কম? এত টাকার বিনিয়োগে, একটি বিখ্যাত স্থাপনার রেপ্লিকা তৈরি ব্যাপারে তারা কি সরোজমিনে একবারও ঘুরে দেখে আসবার সময় করতে পারলেননা। ঢাকা থেকে নারায়নগঞ্জের, সোনারগাঁয়ের পেরাবো গ্রামে যেতে বড়জোর এক দেড় ঘন্টাই লাগত!! এই দেশে কি খবরের অভাব আছে? নাকি টাকা দিলেই খবর ছাপানো যায়। খুব বেশী হলে এই স্থাপনাতে ৩/৪ কোটি টাকার মত খরচ হয়েছে।

I was surprised to note that the leading dailies of the country did not do any verification before writing about these false claims such as 400crores BD Taka (58mn USD), 172 diamonds, Italian marble etc. Is 400crores a child's play? When someone claimed to have spent that kind of money, did they (the MSM) not find the time to verify these tall claims before publishing them as is? At best they would have had to travel for about 1.5hours to do this verification. Is there such dearth of news in this country (that there is no need to verify – anything will do) or can money power get anything published these days? At best only 3/4 crores were spent.

Blogger Raihan called up the newsdesk of a leading Bangla daily Prothom Alo , who had also published the “Taj” article complete with details of lavishness,  and questioned them whether their reporter had physically visited the site before publishing the article and if not, how they could publish an article without first verifying the facts themselves. He says that in response the news desk informed him that they had merely reported the AFP article. After he alerted the person on the line about the facts, he was told that they would surely send a reporter to visit the site and write another article on the same.

With Bangladeshi bloggers uploading their first-hand experience of visiting the site through posts, pictures and videos, it is only now we are getting the real picture of the “fake Taj” story.

Image of the original Taj Mahal in India by Wikipedia, used under a Creative Commons License. Other images were taken by Bibortonbadi and used with permission.

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