Taj Mahal limits visits to three hours to curb overcrowding

Neville Lazarus, Sky News Reporter

The Indian Government is limiting the amount of time visitors can spend at the Taj Mahal to three hours from Sunday, the first time such a restriction has been introduced at the famous site. 

Bhuvan Vikram, the Taj Mahal's superintendent archaeologist, said the aim was "to reduce congestion inside the monument, stop tourists over-staying and manage crowds inside and at the gates".

He added that "the new procedures will also help maintain a proper number and disperse crowds".

The Taj Mahal attracts close to eight million foreign and domestic tourists every year, with as many as 50,000 arriving each weekend.

However, those numbers do not include children below the age of 15, who are not recorded because they get in free.

Officials have acted after recent reports of so-called "human pollution", with ministers considering a proposal to cap entry to the monument to 40,000 people daily.

Mr Vikram said: "We decided three hours was enough time for tourists to see the Taj, even at a leisurely pace. We will monitor it for months in both high and low seasons and then make a call on whether we need to improve the process."

Ticket holders will be checked manually at the exit and, if they have overstayed, they will have to buy a new ticket, with the government planning to streamline this process in the next few months by introducing new technology and turnstiles.

Children under the age of 15 will be given an unpriced ticket to ensure an accurate head-count of visitors.

Mr Vikram said: "We are hoping these restrictions will be substantive enough. It may also give more people a chance to visit the iconic monument. If our first step works, then we may not have to cap the number of daily entries."

All tickets, including those sold online, will have the time specified on them and visitors will be required to stick to it.

The 17th century Taj Mahal was built as a mausoleum by Mughal Emperor Shah Johan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. She died in 1631 while giving birth to her 14th child.

The monument, described as "a teardrop on Earth", took twenty years to complete and is the most visited site in India.

One of the wonders of the modern world, the Taj Mahal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

The monument was controversially excluded from a recent official tourism brochure after members of the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) on the ruling state government, including the Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, said it does not "represent Indian culture".

The state government also excluded it from its heritage plan budget.

Foreign dignitaries visiting the site are now given the Hindu holy text book, the Bhagwan Gita, instead of the traditional gift of a model of the Taj.

But Indian Tourism Minister Alphons Kannanthanam said the monument is "India's pride" and dismissed any controversy surrounding its status.