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Row at Taj over puja, efforts to control crowds blocked

taj mahal, hindu prayer at taj mahal, tourists blocking temple gate, taj mahal row, viral video of women offering prayers at taj mahal, indian express
The Ministry of Culture had announced measures to control crowds following a minor stampede at one of the entry gates in December last year. (File)

The controversy regarding three women caught on video offering prayers at the Taj Mahal, coming in the wake of a dispute over offering namaz on the monument premises, could complicate efforts of authorities to enforce measures announced by the Ministry of Culture earlier to tackle surging crowds.

A few months ago, a group of VHP men vandalised the new steel gates installed at the West Gate to control crowds, saying they blocked the entrance to an old Siddheshwar Mahadev temple. Vasant Swarnkar, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Agra Circle, said, they had offered the VHP an optional route for the temple, but it rejected it as it was “narrower”.

“Without blocking the temple path, which falls between the frisking area for the Taj and the entry gate, the new system can’t be operationalised as frisking will be contaminated owing to free access to the temple,” Swarnkar said. Adding that they needed to find a way out soon, he said, “The winter rush is likely to become unmanageable in the coming days.”

The Ministry of Culture had announced measures to control crowds following a minor stampede at one of the entry gates in December last year, leaving five people injured. Among the measures proposed by the ASI were limiting the duration of a visit to three hours and capping the number of entries to 40,000 a day. The measures depend on the authorities operationalising turnstile gates at both Taj entrances so that tickets can be barcoded and automated. While the project has now been put in place at a cost of more than Rs 3 crore, it stands stalled due to right-wing groups, including the VHP. Sources said ASI has sought Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma’s intervention in the matter.

While the ASI has also filed a police complaint over offering of puja at Taj, police said a quick breakthrough is unlikely as the women in the video haven’t been identified. Added Vinod Kumar, SHO of Tajganj police station, said, “Even if we are able to identify them, as per the nature of the complaint, they will face only a small fine.”

Contesting this, Swarnkar said while their complaint was only over violation of rules “which prohibit any new religious practice at the monument”, inviting a fine of Rs 500, police could add IPC sections dealing with inciting of religious sentiments.

Questioning the “slow” action, Syed Ibrahim Hussain Zaidi, president of the Masjid Taj Mahal Intezamia Committee, said “the entire exercise by the ASI is just a hogwash”. “The names of the three women are out in a section of the local media, and their faces are also clearly visible in the video. Still, the complaint has been against unnamed people. It’s just a ploy to cool down tempers.”

Meanwhile, the namaz matter is far from settled. It was triggered by a grey area in the July 2018 Supreme Court order barring outsiders from offering namaz at the mosque on Taj premises. While the ASI has taken the order to mean that namaz can be offered only on Fridays, that too by just locals, Intezamia Committee members say the order only implies free entry for locals on Fridays, while on all other days, anyone who has bought a ticket can offer namaz.

Zaidi claimed they had been holding namaz three times a day at the Taj mosque despite the ASI officially stopping it since November 3, and that “they will not give up the 400-year-old tradition, in any case”. Swarnkar insisted namaz “is not being held on any day except Friday” since November 3. With no CCTV cameras near the mosque, both sides continue to stick to their claim.

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