Updated: June 20, 2021 10:15:21 am
A 40-year-old woman from Brazil was among the first tourists to enter the Taj Mahal premises as the famed monument reopened earlier this week, after two months. Melissa Dalla Rosa said, “It was a special moment for me to see the Taj Mahal during sunrise and being totally alone at the wonderful place”. What does sound exotic – having one of the most sought-after tourist attractions of the world to yourself – is, in fact, a commentary on the loneliness of the Taj, thanks to the pandemic.
On December 31, 2018, Taj Mahal recorded a whopping 1.17 lakh visitors, its highest ever (as per the Archaeological Survey of India records), while the average daily number hovers at around 25,000. On weekends though, the footfall goes up to 70-80,000. However, on Wednesday, as the ASI announced the reopening of all centrally protected monuments, sites and museums that were shut on April 15 owing to the deadly second wave of COVID-19, the Taj recorded 1919 visitors, and ironically, celebrated that. The next day was a little better – with 2400 visitors. The weekend rush has to wait, since Agra continues to be under weekend curfew, and for now, the Taj has to make do with having visitors only on the weekdays.
Besides the Brazilian tourist, an Indian couple from Lucknow also entered the premises early in the morning, followed by groups of youngsters from nearby towns and families from Agra itself. Some people had driven from Delhi and NCR also to see the Taj. “I’ve visited the Taj Mahal many times but today’s visit was memorable. When I got to know on Monday evening that the Taj reopens on Wednesday, I immediately booked tickets online and was able to see the most beautiful white marble structure properly for the first time,” said one of them, who had driven with his family from Noida.
“Tourists at the Taj Mahal have been asked to follow Covid protocols and were thermal screened and sanitised before entering the premises. Masks are mandatory for everyone and the number of people inside the premises at any time can’t exceed 650,” says Vasant Swarnkar, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI-Agra Circle. The number of guides and photographers allowed inside the premises has also been limited, he adds. A day before the Taj reopened, a vaccination camp was held for its 100-odd staff members, and even though vaccination is not mandatory for allied workers like photographers and guides, Swarnkar says the ASI is considering that option in the near future.
On the first day of its reopening, everyone seemed enthusiastic though – even as they knew that it’s not normalcy but a semblance of it that had come back into their lives. Nearby shopkeepers were busy arranging items and cleaning their shops while tourist guides were also spotted at the Shilpgram parking lot with a smile on their faces. The 500-metre walk from the designated car parking to the East Gate of the Taj makes it clear that these are different times. The road was 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 the hiatus, the traders know it will be a while before they can get back to business as usual. Not just the area around Taj, estimates say 40 per cent of the city’s economy depends on tourism at Taj – be it the hotels, petha sellers, eateries and restaurants, rickshaw pullers or street vendors.
It was a deja vu of sorts for many, as last year also, pandemic-induced lockdowns had forced Taj to remain shut for 188 days. In fact, 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. At the time, when the monument reopened on September 21, 1,235 people visited the Taj, including 20 foreigners. It had gone up to 26,000 a day by December-January and maintained a steady flow, but the second wave forced another shutdown in April.
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. According to an estimate by the ASI, the shutdowns have cost the exchequer a whopping Rs 50 crore.
Past the gates, the Taj looks as stunning, and without the surging crowds, a little more surreal. Swarnkar says this is also because they were able to carry out extensive restoration work while the monument was shut for the public. As many as 25 ASI staff would be present everyday to oversee the daily maintenance of the facade and horticulture areas. Besides, the pillars in the verandahs near the usually crowded toilet area needed some repair, which has been done now. One of the minars of the main monument needed restoration, which couldn’t have been done otherwise since scaffolding would have spoiled photographs for many fond visitors, but that is also complete. The famed love seat – the marble bench where most visitors sit for a photo op – has been laminated now, Swarnkar says, since repeated sanitisation would have spoiled the marble surface.
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