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‘Don’t Sacrifice Your Life to Visit the Taj Mahal’: India Reopens but Fear Pervades

AGRA, INDIA  — Sumit Chaurasia points out how the setting tangerine sun catches the sparkle of the mother-of-pearl embedded in India’s majestic love monument, the Taj Mahal, from a rickety fishing boat on the Yamuna River.

Mr. Chaurasia, 35, has been making such poetic observations to tourists for a decade. However, since March 2020, when India imposed a nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus, most of its monuments have been closed. Visas for foreign tourists have been suspended, and he and his legions have been laid off.

While the Taj Mahal reopened partially in mid-June, with strict visitor limits, Mr. Chaurasia’s life, like much of India, remains in limbo: no longer completely shut down, but far from normal or safe.

Mr. Chaurasia pointed out the flames licking the riverbank from a crematory next to the monument, saying, “The corona is still with us.” This spring, Agra, like India’s capital, New Delhi, ran out of space to cremate its dead, with thousands dying from Covid on a daily basis as India faced one of the world’s most disastrous outbreaks of the disease.

The crowds that usually swarm the Taj at sunset have been reduced to a handful of mostly local residents roaming around the 25-acre complex for a little more than $3 a ticket.

Mr. Chaurasia is moved to tears by this near-emptiness, but he prefers it to the alternative, despite the hardships it imposes on him and the family he supports: elderly parents, a wife, and two young daughters.

“Don’t risk your life to see the Taj Mahal,” he said as the boat bobbed gently on the holy Yamuna, surrounded by monarch butterflies and pelicans flying over the trash-choked shores.

India is only now recovering from a traumatic spring in which a devastating second wave of the coronavirus struck, leaving grim memories of frantic searches for hospital beds, medicine, and oxygen — as well as funeral pyres that burned day and night, turning the skies an ash grey.

As the number of reported cases has decreased, authorities have cautiously reopened the country, including landmarks such as the Taj Mahal. However, only 4% of the country’s 1.4 billion people are fully vaccinated, and health officials warn that another wave is on the way, casting a pall over the life that is beginning to return.

“We don’t go out unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Mr. Chaurasia explained.

Agra, with its wealth of Indo-Islamic architectural treasures, including the Taj Mahal, is usually cacophonous and congested. It is now peaceful and uncrowded, as are the shops selling the inlay marble handicrafts and treacherous sweets for which the city, once the capital of the Mughal empire, is famous.

Agra is a must-see for anyone visiting India, from backpackers to presidents — Donald J. Trump will visit during a state visit in February 2020 — and tourism employs approximately 800,000 people in the city, accounting for half of its population.

Almost all of them have been impacted, according to Pradeep Tamta, a city tourism official. Many of the artisan workshops that dot Agra’s ancient streets have not survived 15 months of intermittent lockdown, and the majority of those that have are struggling.

Irfan Ali, 51, hunches over a machine used to file down shards of mother-of-pearl into moons, stars, and other shapes that will later be adhered to marble in intricate patterns on tiles, tabletops, vases, and trays in an open-air building along a narrow alley.

Foreign tourists, according to Mr. Ali, have driven up demand for the art form, which depicts the materials and motifs of Agra’s most famous monument.

“They were after a piece of the Taj Mahal,” he explained. “There is now only silence.”

Across town, Gaurav Goel, co-owner of a family sweets shop, still sports the shaved head of a Hindu mourner.

Mr. Goel’s great-grandfather, Pancham Lal, inspired the shop’s name, Panchhi. Petha, a syrupy sweet Agra delicacy made from ash pumpkin, a greyish gourd boiled in lime water and sugar, is a specialty of the family. Petha was invented in the 1630s, during the construction of the Taj Mahal, to keep the 20,000 labourers energised during Agra’s intense summer heat.

Kanhaiya Lal Goyal, Mr. Goel’s grandfather, greatly expanded the business by experimenting with new flavours such as saffron and cardamom, as well as slicing blocks of petha into various shapes. In May, he died of Covid-19 complications as a cancer patient.

In a typical year, Mr. Goel’s five shops sell about $1.3 million in sweets. His sales will have dropped by 40% by 2020. However, he is conflicted about returning customers.

“We are not emotionally affected by the loss of business,” he said. “It’s more important that we don’t lose someone.”

The lack of visitors is a problem not only for Agra, but also for the Archaeological Survey of India, the government agency that uses a portion of Taj ticket sales to restore and maintain many of India’s 3,500 lesser-known but historically significant monuments.

The Taj is facing more than just the pandemic.

Leaders of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have sought in recent years to recast the Taj, which was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to entomb his beloved queen, Mumtaz Mahal, as a symbol of Muslim invasion of India.

Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk and the state’s top official in Uttar Pradesh, where Agra is located, removed the monument from the state’s list of tourist attractions, claiming that it does not “reflect Indian culture.”

Sumit Upadhyay is a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. But he also works as a travel agent in Agra, and as he strolled the Taj grounds, his devotion to his hometown and his business seemed to take precedence over the party.

He claimed that the Taj has been neglected while its revenues have been channelled in part by Mr. Adityanath’s government into “enhancing their own monuments,” including a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ram elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh. The temple is being built on the ruins of a mosque that was destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992.

The state government, he claims, is “doing nothing for the Taj Mahal.” “You must look after this monument if you want people to visit India.”

The monument has 2,000 visitors on its busiest days since reopening, which is less than one-tenth of its capacity.

It is, however, an extraordinary experience for those who dare to visit. When a space is empty, the texture that was lost in a crowded space emerges like bas-relief.

Lime-green parakeets dart through Mughal gardens and reflective pools. The usual jostling for a close-up look at the detail of the carved amber, jade, coral, and lapis lazuli is replaced by a sense of the tomb’s scale and solemnity inside the mausoleum.

A normally crowded and public space has been transformed into a private haven.

Hara Khan and Satyam Singh, a couple in their twenties who met online during the pandemic last year, sought refuge in the mausoleum’s arched balconies. Mr. Singh had travelled by train from Delhi to Ms. Khan’s birthday party.

This spring, they both lost a mutual friend to Covid-19.

Ms. Khan described the monument’s reopening as “amazing.” “We were planning for an entire year,” she admitted shyly, stealing a glance at Mr. Singh. “This is our first meeting.”


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