A storm that hit Agra last week, with wind speeds of 127 km per hour, caused extensive damage to the marble railing of the Taj Mahal and uprooted trees on the lawns. As the news reached the authorities, officials and staff of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) — its primary caretaker — had to navigate the night curfew in Covid hotspot Agra to reach the spot. The damage was assessed and documented in the wee hours.
The world heritage monument was left mostly unattended since the Centre ordered the shutting of all ASI-protected monuments on March 17. Subsequently, as Agra saw a spike in Covid-19 cases, even the maintenance staff found it hard to reach the premises.
An ASI official told The Indian Express, “We tried to ensure that at least minimal maintenance staff reaches our protected monuments, so that cleaning, horticulture and sanitation activities could be done. But wherever a monument fell in a red zone, we were helpless.”
In Delhi, too, hardly any maintenance staff could make it inside the premises of Qutb Minar, Red Fort and Purana Qila because all districts were designated red zones.
Incidentally, Qutb Minar also suffered damage during the lockdown, as an allegedly drunk man crashed his speeding car into the periphery of the complex last month. The ASI filed a complaint with police.
After the incident at Taj Mahal, newly designated ASI D-G V Vidyavathi visited Agra. ASI Superintending Archaeologist Vasant Swarnkar said, “We are assessing how the damage can be fixed, and how SOPs can be created once the Ministry of Home Affairs allows its reopening.”
The Ministry of Culture, in consultation with the ASI, is working on creating SOPs for all ASI-protected monuments, sources told The Indian Express. It is unlikely that the green signal will be given this month. However, the likely precautions include doing away with ticket windows in favour of e-ticketing, allowing small groups inside, sanitisation of premises and keeping congested parts of monuments out of bounds, the sources said.
Taj gets an average of 6 lakh tourists a month, and it will be a mammoth task to ensure social distancing there. However, Swarnkar said they are not expecting a rush at the outset since international travel remains suspended and domestic movement for leisure is likely to be limited in the coming months.
On June 1, the Rajasthan government reopened some monuments like Jantar Mantar, Hawa Mahal and Amer Fort, which come under the state government’s purview and are not managed by ASI. Prakash Chandra Sharma, Director of the state’s Department of Archaeology and Museums, said: “We have already issued SOP and instructed all concerned to take required steps to open the monuments. Programmes by folk artistes can also be organised.”
However, he clarified that monuments in containment zones will not be opened, and elephant rides and night tourism at all sites remain suspended. For the first two weeks, visitors’ entry will be free to avoid rush at ticket windows. The monuments will open on alternate days to start with.