India's famed Taj Mahal monument has opened its doors to nighttime visitors after 20 years. As Anjana Pasricha reports, fears of terrorist attacks had led authorities to ban tourist visits after sunset.
Hundreds of visitors flocked to the Taj Mahal in the northern Indian city of Agra on Saturday and Sunday for the first nighttime tours of the monument complex in two decades.
A glimpse of the white marble tomb bathed in the glow of a full moon is considered one of the most romantic views of the 17th century monument, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of the wife he loved.
But in 1984, authorities banned night visits amid fears of attacks by militants of the Sikh religious minority, who were then waging an insurgency in the northern state of Punjab. Later, the monument was considered a potential target of Muslim militant groups leading a violent rebellion in Kashmir.
During a military standoff with Pakistan in 2001, Indian authorities even made plans to camouflage the Taj to protect it against possible air strikes.
Last week, India's Supreme Court lifted the ban on night visits for an initial period of three months. State authorities, keen to boost tourism, threw open the doors of the Taj on Saturday evening, allowing visitors to tour the grounds of the complex, although not the building itself.
Among those who rushed for a glimpse of the splendid monument was photographer Raghu Rai, who has done a book on the Taj. "Each aspect of Taj, especially at night, is so magical. It shines like a jewel," said Mr. Rai. "The very feeling of freedom that you can view it again at night was a very enriching experience."
Most visitors were delighted, others a little disappointed. "I really feel lucky to be the first one to see after 20 years, and that too on a full moon night," said one visitor. "Because of the fog we just had an outline picture of the Taj," commented another.
Four hundred visitors in small groups of 50 are being allowed to see the monument at night amid tight security that includes extra police, metal detectors and X-ray machines. Visitors will only be allowed on five nights a month - the night of the full moon, and two nights before and after.
The nighttime visits have started as authorities celebrate the 350th anniversary of the monument. Two years ago, the pearl-white building was given a facelift to remove decades of grime and pollution stains from its surface.
Last year, an estimated three million domestic and foreign tourists visited the Taj Mahal, the world's most famous monument to love.