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BY S VENKAT NARAYAN

Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI:

Taj Mahal, the world’s most famous monument to love located in Agra in India’s Uttar Pradesh state 221km from here, reopened to the public last Monday after six months. It remained shut since March 17 due to Covid-19 pandemic. About 160 tickets were booked online on the first day. The first to enter was a tourist from Taiwan staying in India, officials said.

A maximum of 5,000 visitors will be allowed in two shifts per day into the monument, the 17th-century architectural marvel built by fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666) in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child.

On normal days, the Taj attracts 25,000 to 30,000 visitors a day.

Tight Covid-19 protocol will be followed for checking tourists. There will be no window ticket sale, visitors can scan the code to purchase tickets or book online through the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) website, or through the ASI mobile app.

Not many paid Rs 200 to visit the main mausoleum but appeared content taking photos of the monument and clicking themselves on the ‘Diana seat’.

ASI officials said they had not neglected the monument despite its gates having remained closed for so long.

“Lawns were maintained all through these six months. The Taj will stay open from sunrise to sunset. All will go through thermal check and they will be provided with sanitizer,” said AN Gupta, conservation assistant, ASI at the white marble monument.  

Gupta said not more than five visitors will be allowed at a time within the main mausoleum, which houses the graves of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, the third of his six wives. The mausoleum will remain closed on Fridays, said Agra district magistrate Prabhu N Singh.  

Vasant Swarnkar, superintending archaeologist for ASI’s Agra circle, said: “The Taj Mahal will have visitors in two slots — pre-lunch and post-lunch. In each slot, there will be a maximum of 2,500 visitors. Once tickets for the first slot are sold, tickets will be issued for the second slot. In a day, a maximum of 5,000 visitors can visit the Taj.”  

Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) jawans will remain at a distance and check visitors with hand-held metal detectors.

No goods are to be carried inside the Taj. An an ambulance will be ready at the gates, Gupta said.  

The Taj’s reopening has excited all those who make a living in and around the monument. For instance, Munawwar Ali, 50, began cleaning items at his marble goods shop on Sunday for the first time since March 16.  

“We have called the staff on Monday after six months. We expect business to be slow but at least we will see tourists going to the Taj,” said Ali. He has a shop adjoining the western gate of the monument.  

‘Yes, we are excited about the reopening of the Taj after such a long duration. A day will come when international flights will resume. In the beginning, domestic tourists from nearby regions will come,” said Rajiv Tiwari, president of the Federation of Travel Association of Agra.

“ASI needs to follow the Covid-19 protocol so that all goes smoothly. The government should begin thinking about restarting international flights as European nations have resumed tourism. We have to live with the coronavirus,” Tiwari added.  

Indians will have to pay INR 50 per ticket for visiting the Taj Mahal and cough up another INR200 for entering the main mausoleum. During routine days, it was mostly foreign tourists who used to pay extra to enter the main mausoleum.

Tourism trade experts recollect that the Taj Mahal had never remained closed for such a long period before. The decision to close monuments all over the country due to the Covid-19 pandemic was taken on March 17, before the lockdown.  

“It is perhaps for the first time that the seventh New Wonder of the World, which attracts a large number of foreign tourists to India, had been closed for such a long time,” said Arun Dang, former president of Tourism Guild.  

“This is unprecedented. Though the monument was closed during the Second World War and also during two wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, the closure had not been so long,” said Dang.

While the Taj Mahal will remain closed on Fridays and Sundays, Agra Fort will remain shut on Sundays.

According to ASI estimates, the Taj Mahal receives around seven to eight million visitors each year, including a large number of foreign tourists who are not likely to come till regular international traffic resume. The Agra Fort gets three million visitors a year.

Emperor Shah Jahan reigned over much of what are now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan for 30 years (1628-58), and built the Red Fort and Jama Masjid in Delhi and the Lahore Fort in Lahore (now in Pakistan).

It took 21 years (1532-53) for over 20,000 labourers to build the Taj on a 17-hectare (42-acre) plot on the banks of River Yamuna at a cost of INR 32 million then, and INR 70 billion or nearly one billion US dollars now.

When he took ill, and handed over his reign to his elder son Dara Shiko, younger son Aurangzeb killed Dara Shiko, seized power, declared Shah Jahan an incompetent ruler who wasted too much money on building massive monuments, and jailed him in the Agra Fort.

Shah Jahan could see the Taj only from a tiny window in his cell in the Fort, and died a sad man in 1666.

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Author: The Covid-19 Channel