A member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party has petitioned a court to open nearly two dozen rooms of the Taj Mahal over claims that they contain idols of Hindu gods.
Many right-wing Hindus have been claiming for decades that the ivory-white marble Unesco heritage monument, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his wife Mumtaaz, was a temple devoted to the Hindu god Shiva.
The 17th century mausoleum is listed as one of the new seven wonders of the world and remains a top tourist attraction globally, attracting about eight million visitors a year.
Rajneesh Singh, the petitioner and person in charge of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in nearby Ayodhya city, in Uttar Pradesh, filed a petition at state's Allahabad High Court on Saturday demanding to open the 22 rooms in the basement of the "monument of love".
“There has been a perception in the country that there is a temple inside the Taj Mahal. Many Hindu groups have attempted to offer prayers. I want the truth to come out,” Mr Singh told The National.
“I am not in favour of either mosque or a temple but I want such doubts to be cleared. India is developing and there is no scope for such doubts that cause differences among the religious communities."
Mr Singh said he had received a little information about the sealed rooms from the Archaeological Survey of India, which manages the historical monument and comes under Mr’s Modi’s government.
But he said he was not given any reasons for their closure or any hints as to the contents.
Mr Singh approached the court to ascertain whether the Hindu idols have been locked behind the door.
He has also sought the court to set up a fact-finding committee and the survey to submit a report.
“I want this debate to be settled for once and all. If there is a perception, we need to know the reasons behind it,” Mr Singh said.
The controversy around the Taj Mahal is believed to have originated from a book written by self-styled historian PN Oak, which claims to have evidence to prove the mausoleum is a Hindu temple.
India’s Supreme Court in 2000 had dismissed Mr Oak’s petition to declare that a Hindu king had built the Taj Mahal but since then, his theories have inspired dozens of petitioners, several right-wing political parties and leaders to assume it was a temple.
The Shiv Sena — the ruling party in Maharashtra — routinely holds prayers for Lord Shiva near the Taj Mahal and several Hindu organisations have demanded to stop Friday prayers at the mosque inside the monument.
The survey in 2017 said there was no evidence to suggest the monument ever had a temple, after a petitioner had demanded to rename it as Tejomahalay.