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Agra, Nov. 28 (NNN): There is a mad rush to see the historic Taj Mahal as tourists flocked Agra to watch the 17th-century world-famous monument of love by moonlight after the country’s Supreme Court lifted a 20-year ban on its night viewing last week.
Night visits to the Taj, once a romantic highlight of any visit to India, were banned in 1984 amid fears that militant Sikhs battling the government would attack the shrine.

The apex court on Thursday threw open the Taj Mahal, for visitors on moonlit evenings.

Starting this weekend, the court has allowed tourists to view the white-marble Taj on full moon nights and on two nights before and after the full moon from 8:30 pm to half-past midnight.

The court said the night viewing would be allowed for an initial period of three months. It said only 400 tourists would be allowed on a given night with entry allowed in small batches of 50 people.

“I’ve been standing in front of the ticket counter for hours but I doubt we’ll get a ticket for tonight. I’m more optimistic about finding two tickets for Sunday,” said Briton Derek Guy Lewton.

“My wife is a romantic. I planned this Taj holiday as a special treat for her. Both of us are so looking forward to seeing the Taj by moonlight. This is like a second honeymoon,” he added.

“Security has been beefed up. Over 200 hundred policemen have been deployed in and around the Taj and commandos will guard key access points,” said local police chief Alok Prasad. Tourists will only be allowed to view the Taj Mahal from a red sandstone platform some 350 yards from the monument.

“This is a precaution... we do not want people to get too close to the monument at night,” Prasad said.

“Tourists will also be banned from carrying video cameras and electronic gadgets like mobile phones into the Taj complex. We will only allow cameras and binoculars.”

The safety drill has not deterred visitors.

“Even in half-moon, the nights at the Taj look so beautiful especially with the white marble,” said Raghu Rai, a photographer who has produced a book on the monument. He told AFP he was hoping to see the monument by night.

“When moonlight falls on the white marble it’s like a glowing diamond, a jewel in space. You have to sit far away and gradually walk towards it. Full moon is mind-boggling,” he added.

The Taj Mahal celebrated its 350th anniversary in September.

The monument, which was given a facelift two years ago to remove decades of grime and pollution stains, was built by the heartbroken Mughul emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his second wife Mumtaz Mahal.

Some 2.2 million Indians and 800,000 foreigners last year visited the Taj, 200 kilometres from New Delhi.

The apex court on Thursday threw open the Taj Mahal, for visitors on moonlit evenings.

However, only 400 people will be allowed to visit between 2030 IST to 0030 IST five times a month -- the full moon night and two nights prior and two nights after it, a Bench comprising Justice Ruma Pal, Justice S B Sinha and Justice S H Kapadia said.

After being satisfied that all security arrangements had been made and a computerised ticketing system had been put in place by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the state government, the Bench told UP counsel Ashok Desai and ASI counsel A D N Rao that the permission was being granted initially for three months.

"We will see after that," the Bench said.

The court also placed some restrictions.

No one will be allowed to go to the red sandstone platform without purchasing a ticket. Everyone, including VIPs, will have to alight from their cars 500 metres away from the monument.

Battery-operated vehicles will be used to take the spectators, who will be allowed to carry nothing except still cameras and binoculars.

Night visits to the Taj, once a romantic highlight of any visit to India, were banned in 1984 amid fears that militant Sikhs battling the government would attack the shrine.

The Sikh insurgency ended in the mid-1990s, but Indian authorities have remained reluctant to let visitors back to the Taj after sunset.

During the height of tensions between India and Pakistan in 2001, officials drew up plans to camouflage the Taj to disguise it from possible Pakistani air attacks.

There were also fears that a militant Kashmiri separatist group, Laskhar-e-Toiba, was planning to try and blow up the shrine.

The Supreme Court announcement came as state officials in Uttar Pradesh were celebrating the Taj's 350th anniversary close to its site in the city of Agra.

State tourism minister Kaukab Hamid described the ruling as "heartening". "This reopening of the Taj for moonlight viewing is going to draw fantastic crowds from across the globe," he said.

"We will ensure strict security and follow visitor guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court," he said.

Tourist chiefs said more than 300,000 foreigners visited the Taj Mahal site in 2003, but numbers are down since the terror attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001.

More than 10,000 Indian and Persian artisans took 22 years to build it, from 1632 to 1654 1,000 elephants were used to transport materials to the site. White marble terrace sits on sandstone base Cenotaph inside the dome is encrusted with jewels.

Legend has it that after its completion the hands of the artisans were chopped off so that they would not be able to build anything to rival it

Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as an expression of love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal.

Situated on the banks of River Yamuna, the shrine is largely made of white marble that reflects the changes of colour visible during sunset and clear, moonlit nights.

It was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1983, meaning the Indian Supreme Court must rule on major works or changes likely to impact on the site.

In 1996, there were fears that the sound system at a concert by Greek musician Yanni may have damaged the delicate marble structure.

Built in the 1600s by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a shrine for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, The Taj Mahal is a World Heritage site.

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