Hundreds of tourists flocked to India’s Taj Mahal on Wednesday as it opened to the public for the first time since April because of a devastating second wave of coronavirus.
Carrying bottles of hand sanitisers and posing for cameras, many visitors eschewed face masks in front of the 17th-century ivory-white marble monument to love.
Jamal Ahmed, 29, an Iraqi refugee from Mosul, was one of the earliest visitors to visit the monument and drove with a friend for three hours from New Delhi.
"This is my fifth visit to the Taj Mahal. I am delighted to be back here. I love it for its beauty and greenery. I couldn't wait for its reopening," Mr Ahmed told The National on Tuesday.
The mausoleum was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, on the banks of the Yamuna river in Agra, now in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
A world heritage monument and counted as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, it attracts seven to eight million visitors a year and has been visited by famous global personalities including Sheikh Zayed, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana and three American presidents including Donald Trump.
In a history spanning more than four centuries, the architectural marvel was closed just three times in the past – once in 1971 during the India-Pakistan war; then during the floods of 1978; and last March for 188 days when India imposed a nationwide lockdown to curb the pandemic.
It was reopened in September 2020 but had to be closed for a second time in mid-April when authorities imposed strict lockdowns and restrictions to handle another wave of coronavirus that battered the country.
More than 170,000 people have died and more than 20 million caught the virus since March as the country struggled to treat its sick because of shortages of medications and hospital space.
Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state with more than 240 million inhabitants, was badly hit and recorded more than a million cases and 12,000 deaths.
A strict lockdown and renewed vaccine effort reduced case numbers in recent weeks, allowing some tourist spots to reopen.
On Wednesday, about 62,000 new Covid-19 cases were reported, the lowest since March, data from the health ministry showed, prompting authorities to reopen monuments in an attempt to revive tourism in the country, which is suffering severe losses because of the pandemic.
India is cut off from most countries as international flights and sea travel remain suspended after more than a year.
But for tourists like Vijay Sharma, 23, the reopening of the Taj Mahal came as a breath of fresh air.
The pharmacist from Udaipur in neighbouring Rajasthan state said the last two months were traumatising when Covid-19 cases overwhelmed his city.
"This is my first visit to the Taj Mahal and I am beyond overjoyed. I had been planning to visit the monument for years," Mr Sharma told The National.
He and his friends took an overnight train to the monument.
“The last two months my store has been buzzing with people for medicines. I couldn’t even close the shop for an hour,” he said.
“Now that the cases are dropping, I thought of taking a break and what better than a visit to the Taj Mahal.”
Before Covid-19 struck, an average of 10,000 tourists a day visited the monument but now only 650 tourists are allowed inside to avoid overcrowding and maintain social distance.
Authorities installed sanitisers and tourists are screened on entry and instructed not to touch any objects inside the monument.
"We are maintaining social norms … there is definitely a fear of contracting the infection but we can't stay locked at home for ever. We are sanitising our hands and not getting close to any stranger," Reena Prajapati, another tourist, told The National.
As case numbers dropped to their lowest level in more than two months, several cities including capital New Delhi and Mumbai are lifting curbs on movement and easing other restrictions allowing all shops and markets to open.
On Sunday, social media users shared videos showing hundreds of vehicles lined up at an entry point to the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh, as thousands of tourists flocked to the Himalayan state famous for its lush pine valleys, trekking trails and snow-capped peaks.
Health experts and authorities are cautioning against the reopening of the country, fearing a deadlier third wave of Covid-19 because only about 5 per cent, about 250 million, of its 1.4 billion population have received a jab against the virus while just 3 per cent are fully vaccinated.
But for people in smaller cities like Agra who heavily depend on tourism, the reopening of the Taj Mahal brought a sense of relief and excitement.
The historic monument not only provides direct employment for guides and tour operators, but is also a key source of income for the local tourism-driven economy, including handicrafts, local sweets, leather products and restaurants.
"The lockdown sent a resounding blow to our livelihoods. I earned enough to take care of the seven members of my family but after it was closed, we were living hand to mouth," said Sonuddin, a guide at the Taj Mahal.
“I am relieved that it has been opened but who knows the future … I can only hope for good business,” he said.