A Corporate Pilgrimage to the Taj

India's landmarks are getting sponsors--and face-lifts, too

Every year, India's Taj Mahal attracts more than 2 million tourists from all over the world. But the eye-catching attraction is turning into an eyesore. Thanks to centuries of neglect and decades of exposure to pollutants, the semiprecious stones that stud the delicate marble facade are falling out. And next to the Taj's soaring architectural genius, the visitors' facilities are nothing to cheer about.

Now that is set to change. The Taj Mahal is about to acquire a corporate sponsor that has plans to restore the monument to its original glory. Short-listed for the job is the Taj Group of Hotels, part of the $8 billion Tata Group, India's premier blue-chip conglomerate with industrial assets throughout the country. The company would take on the task of restoring and maintaining the monument, which is currently the government's job.

WIN-WIN. Corporate adoptions of historic monuments is all the rage in India these days. It's all part of a government drive to privatize the landmarks' upkeep. India has an annual budget of $30 million to maintain its 5,000 historical sites but needs at least 10 times that much to do it properly, says Abnash Grover, director of conservation for the Archeological Survey of India, a state institution.

In recent months, corporations have adopted about a dozen sites. The Oberoi Group of hotels, along with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, has agreed to pay the $42,500 cost of illuminating the 16th century tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayun in New Delhi for five years. And state-owned Indian Oil Corp. has taken on five others, including Delhi's 13th century tower, the Qutub Minar.

Officials expect to pick a corporate sponsor for the Taj Mahal by June. R.K. Krishna Kumar, managing director of the 60-hotel Taj Group, which has renovated eight crumbling heritage properties across India, won't comment until the deal is sealed. If chosen, the Taj Group would bring in international experts and spend an estimated $500,000 restoring the stone inlay work, maintaining the marble, and developing tourist-friendly infrastructure. It's a win-win situation: The company earns enormous goodwill and India's best-known treasure gets a face-lift.

By Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay

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