Agra: From three metres 25 years ago, the length of the 'chadar' offered by the devout at the annual Shah Jahan Urs in the Taj Mahal has increased to 450 metres this time. The number of faithful has risen from a dozen to nearly 100,000.
With thousands freely entering the majestic Taj Mahal for the three-day Urs celebrations that end Sunday, questions are being raised over the security of the white marble wonder that thousands come to see from all over the world.
This year, for the 356th Urs, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and tourism circles estimate that a record 100,000 people will have visited the 17th century monument. The Taj contains the graves of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal and putting a 'chadar', or sheet, over these graves is a Sufi way of honouring the departed.
Sandeep Arora, a former president of the Agra Hotels and Restaurants Association, says most ASI employees at the Taj are temporary workers, and those given the responsibility for checking the visitors have themselves not gone through the intelligence verification process.
Tourism industry leader Abhinav Jain sees three major threats to the Taj Mahal: from terrorists, from air pollution and from too many people.
Last year also the monument was flooded with tourists and the devout, causing additional stress and pressure on the monument. The ASI had come under considerable flak for overlooking security considerations.
No doubt the ASI has taken adequate measures to ensure the monument was not put to any risk, but the free flow of people into the inner chamber of the real graves with hardly enough room for free movement is a matter of concern, say conservationists.
It is not clear how and when the Shah Jahan Urs started. Earlier it used to be Mumtaz Mahal's Urs, says a Taj Ganj resident.
"Till a few years ago hardly a score congregated for Shah Jahan's annual Urs. But this year there seems to be no end to the celebrations. Each year the length of the chadar goes on increasing with rival committees competing with one another," said a hotelier, who did not like to be named due to religious sensitivities involved.
In 1993, the Supreme Court-appointed high-powered committee headed by S. Vardarajan had recommended restrictions and control on entry of visitors. For the first time in history, the Taj Mahal got a weekly holiday and visiting hours were restricted.
Historians and conservationists now feel the marble edifice is being endangered by a surfeit of love and interest showered by its admirers whose number continues to soar sky high. From a few hundred at the time of independence, the daily influx of visitors from all corners has now crossed 12,000. On some days it crosses the 30,000 mark. During the annual Urs it touches 100,000.
It is this increasing human load that is a cause for concern and has alarmed the conservationists who have now asked the Supreme Court to get this issue examined.
While the tourism industry and the government want more and more tourists, conservationists see alarming signals.
Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, wants a graded system of entry tickets, with those paying the highest amount allowed to enter the mausoleum.
"Those who pay less should not be allowed beyond the central tank. And for the masses let there be free entry till the main gate or the forecourt from where they can have a distant glimpse of the Taj Mahal," Sharma said.
Historian R. Nath and others also feel that some system has to be evolved to regulate the flow.
"My concern has increased after reports that no one has been inside the basement to see the state of the foundation for many years. With the Yamuna receding several hundred feet away and with hardly any water left in the river, we are inviting trouble," warned Nath, Mughal historian and author of scores of books on Taj Mahal's architecture.