Agra: More than 20,000 people built the Taj Mahal in 22 years in the 17th century. Just 10 km away, another mausoleum that could possibly rival the Taj has taken a century and the labour of some six generations, but is still far from complete.

The memorial to the founder of the Radha Soami faith, Swamiji Maharaj, is one of the most ambitious projects in modern India. Being built in the Soami Bagh colony in the Dayalbagh area, bus-loads of tourists, mostly domestic, visit the mausoleum daily. The entrance is free.

Only three of the seven storeys are complete, but already people have begun comparing it with the Taj Mahal, the white marbled luminiscent wonder that attracts thousands of tourists every day.

“Those who want to see live how craftsmen and stone cutters worked in the medieval age can get a glimpse of the hectic activity in the workshops of the mausoleum,” said Rajveer Singh, a devotee. Officials supervising the construction refuse to talk about the project.

“We do not have any deadline in mind. It's a form of worship that has been going on and will go on relentlessly,” said an elderly supervisor at the stone-cutting workshop.

The Taj Mahal houses the maosoleum of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. In the Soami Bagh mausoleum are the ashes of Swamiji Maharaj.

The Soami Bagh mausoleum stands amidst a colony of the followers of the Radha Soami faith which aims at building what many have described as a utopian society. The faith claims to have millions of followers in states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka as well as foreign countries.

Swamiji died in 1897 aged 60 and his first disciple Huzur Maharaj erected a simple building of white sandstone in his honour. In 1904, work began on a new design by an architect from Allahabad.

Work was held up for a few years, but since 1922 to this day men have been toiling away, mostly by hand, at the enormous, highly decorated construction.

The artisans work with intense devotion. Some old men have spent all their lives on the site, as their fathers and grandfathers did before them, and as their sons and grandsons are now doing.

These days the artisans have some machinery to help them, but their work is as painstaking as ever.

The architectural design of the building conforms to no particular style, modern or traditional, though in conception it is essentially oriental. An effort has been made to blend a variety of styles harmoniously.

However, the sponsors of Soami Bagh, literally the 'garden of the Lord', firmly deny any plans of rivalling the Taj.

“What's the hurry?” asked an office bearer of the Satsang Sabha, the administrative body of the Radha Soami faith. “The important thing is that the work goes on and is done well. So many people are being provided with work, means of livelihood. Most are weak and old, over 60 years of age. We can't throw them out even if they are slow or fail to meet our exacting requirements.”

Work on the main gate is complete. It took years because marble stone of the desired size could not be found. Most of the marble for the mausoleum has come from Makrana and Jodhpur quarries in Rajasthan. The variegated mosaic stone is from Nowshera in Pakistan. Semi-precious stones for inlay work have been procured from riverbeds in central and southern India.

Shailesh Singh, who is associated with the project, said, “The chief reason for the delay is the non-availability of quality stones. We have leased marble mines near Mount Abu in Rajasthan, where around 125 workers are engaged in stone cutting and chiselling. But the quality of stone is not as good as that used in the Taj Mahal. In the past 20 years or so, due to the active involvement of an NRI devotee, construction picked up momentum, but since his departure work has slowed down again.”

Sonu, a stone-cutter from Rajasthan, said not many skilled workers are available now. The young ones seek greener pastures, particularly in Gulf countries, where masons are always in demand. On an average working day, around 100 workers are employed at the site.

(Agencies)