At 5.39 am on Monday morning, with the entry of Chinese national Liang Chiacheng, the Taj Mahal got its first visitor since March.
The six-month Covid-enforced break was the longest the 17th Century monument, which is among India’s most visited and photographed, had gone without visitors.
On Monday, the tourists came back, despite the strict protocol in place, but the numbers were nowhere close to the 20,000-40,000 daily visitors in pre-Covid times.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which manages the monument, has decided to allow only 5,000 visitors a day, in two batches — sunrise to noon, and 12.30 pm to sunset. On Monday, the ASI said, 1,235 people visited the Taj, including 20 foreigners.
In the faint glow of dawn, the 500-metre walk from the designated car parking to the East Gate of the Taj offers early hints that these are different times. The road is largely deserted and there are few takers for the battery-operated rickshaws. The shops on either side of this road, though open, are forlorn — the men behind the counters wear tired looks, along with their masks. Though the Taj and this entire stretch of Tajganj were swinging back into action after a hiatus of 188 days, the traders know it will be a while before they can get back to business as usual.
With physical tickets not allowed, the ticket window is shut and most visitors have e-tickets on their mobile phones. Visitors are let in after the mandatory thermal scanning and sanitising of hands and feet by staff in PPE gear. However, after every entry, the staff has a hard time sanitising the manual turnstile gates.
Past the gates, the Taj looks as stunning, and without the surging crowds, a touch dreamier.
Groups of young men and women from Agra and around pose in front of the facade, taking the mandatory selfies. Every slip of a mask or a hand that lingers for too long on a railing invites warnings from policemen on duty.
Among the visitors at the Taj today are a couple from Delhi who are here to see the Taj “for the first time” and a Russian national who has been stranded in India since March this year.
“I was in Jaipur when international flights were discontinued, and I was stuck. I will hopefully return in a fortnight as the situation back home has improved. I thought I might as well see the Taj while I am here.”
Raj Karan, who does “retail ki dukandaari”, has driven down from Balia with his wife and two young children “to witness the reopening”.
Entry for licensed photographers has been restricted. Out of 465 photographers operating inside the Taj, only 115-odd are being allowed in, that too, for four hours at a time.
According to an estimate by the ASI, the six-month shutdown has cost the exchequer a whopping Rs 35 crore.
Says Vasant Swarnkar, Super-intending Archaeologist, ASI Agra Circle, “As of now, we are only allowing 5,000 daily visitors to the Taj. On the first day of reopening, around 20-25% tickets were sold. Till things open up to an extent wherein we exhaust this limit on a daily basis, we are not thinking of allowing more people.”
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