Olivia Culpo, the 2012 Miss Universe winner, is under fire for partaking in an unauthorized photo shoot at the Taj Mahal during her recent trip to India. As part of her 10-day tour spreading awareness about women's issues, Culpo participated in a photo shoot on the marble ledge famously known as the Diana Seat, named after the late British princess who visited in 1992 where she modeled with the Taj Mahal as the backdrop.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is now threatening to file a complaint against the agency behind the trip because commercial activity is banned on the premises of the Taj Mahal, which is a World Heritage Site. The shoot was also slammed as an "insult" by the monument's caretaker and is a violation of India's Heritage Act. If found guilty, Culpo's group can be fined 100,000 rupees ($1,600) and jailed for up to two years.
The Taj Mahal is an Islamic mausoleum built for the late wife of Mughal ruler Shah Jahan. Completed in 1648, visitors are asked to remove their shoes while visiting the monument. Footwear, however, is allowed in the garden area where the Diana Seat is located. Wearing a long peach-colored dress, the 21-year-old model was accompanied by Indian-born fashion designer Sanjana Jon and posed for photographers wearing one sandal, holding another in her hand and keeping another on the bench where she sat. Central Industrial Security Force and tourism police officials who did not attempt to stop the photo shoot are also being investigated.
Many would argue that there are more important issues to confront in India, and that Culpo's work to raise awareness in India is being ignored in light of this controversy. In particular, the country and Taj caretaker, Munazzar Ali, considered the team's placement of shoes on top of the bench particularly disrespectful, and rightfully so.
In Indian culture, according to the Hindu tradition, feet and shoes are symbolic. They are farthest from the heavens and in constant contact with the dirt of the earth, and therefore considered physically and spiritually unclean. Culpo was seemingly unaware of the brewing controversy and uploaded a photo of the Taj Mahal to an Instagram account the day after her visit.
It is unlikely that Culpo will be jailed for the photo shoot anytime soon as registering a case is a preliminary step, and the issue may not go to court. The incident will likely blow over in a few weeks and lead to nothing more than a slap on the wrist. There are, however, norms and beliefs in any country and culture that should be respected especially by an organization that promotes and celebrates cultural diversity.