Muslim residents of Agra have protested against the imposition of a restriction at the Taj Mahal barring Muslims who do not live in the area from offering Friday prayers at the mosque that adjoins the 17th century monument.

According to local news reports, Muslims say this started a few weeks ago by the Archaeological Survey of India, which manages the site. They say that security officials now check identity cards of people who come to offer namaaz on Fridays – the day the Taj Mahal is closed – and only those Muslims who are residents of Agra are allowed in. They contend that earlier, all Muslims from India, regardless of where they lived, were allowed to offer Friday namaaz.

A few years ago, the Archaeological Survey of India barred foreigners from offering namaaz at the mosque on Fridays after suspicions that tourists were using the prayers to evade the monument’s entry fee.

Responding to enquiries about the new restrictions, an official from the Archaeological Survey of India said that there is no new order related to Friday prayers at the mosque, but he also asserted that permission to hold prayers has traditionally been restricted to residents of Agra.

Protest march in Agra

Though the Taj Mahal is shut on Fridays, its premises are opened for a two-hour window between noon and 2 pm to allow Muslims to offer prayers, or jumme ki namaaz, at the red sandstone Mumtaz Masjid on the right flank of the marble mausoleum.

This practice is mentioned in a notification issued on July 16, 2008, by the Ministry of Culture, which controls the Archaeological Survey of India. It states: “The monument shall remain closed on every Friday, except to those offering customary afternoon prayers in the mosque in the Taj Mahal Complex between 12:00 hours to 14:00 hours…”

Namaaz is occassionally held at the mosque during the monument’s opening hours on other days too, when Muslim visitors, irrespective of citizenship, are permitted to join in. There is no official rule about this though, and all attendees have paid the entrance fee.

According to reports, on March 16, Muslims took out a protest march in Agra and handed over a memorandum to officials of the Archaeological Survey of India demanding that no distinction should be made between Muslims from Agra and the rest of the country, and that all Muslims should be allowed to offer Friday prayers at the mosque.

“ASI officials have imposed the restrictions,” said Haji Tahiruddin, head of the Khuddam-e-Roza committee. “Now, only Muslims of Agra are allowed to offer namaaz at the Taj Mahal mosque. They check identity cards at the gate before allowing them.” Tahiruddin added that his organisation was seeking legal opinion on the matter.

The Khuddam-e-Roza committee organises the annual Urs (death anniversary commemmoration) of Mughal emperor Shahjahan at the Taj Mahal. The monument was commissioned in 1632 by Shahjahan as a mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Shahjahan was also interred there later.

RK Singh, assistant superintendent, Archaeological Survey of India, Agra Circle, said that only those Muslims who traditionally offered namaaz at the mosque are allowed in on Fridays. “This practice is confined to traditional practice,” he said, referring to the 2008 notification. “No outsider will offer namaaz here. It is meant for locals who have been offering namaaz traditionally, there are several other mosques here also.”

But Munawwar Ali, the chairman of the Taj Mahal Mosque Management Committee, insisted that there should not be any restriction on entry for religious activities. “There is no such restriction for religious activities anywhere,” he said. “This way, the Haj pilgrimage may also be stopped on grounds that only locals will attend it.”

The All India Muslim Personal Board, a non-government organisation that claims to represent India’s Muslims, said that it would work with local residents to ensure that the matter is addressed satisfactorily. “We will contact the concerned local persons and then take further step in this regard,” said Zafaryab Jilani, an executive committee member of the board.

South Gate closed

Another point of contention has been the closure of the South Gate of the Taj Mahal since 2017. “This is the main entrance for the mosque,” said Munawwar Ali. “It remained open earlier but now it has been closed. We also demand that it should be opened.”

RK Singh admitted that the use of the South Gate is not permitted anymore. He said the decision was taken at a meeting in which the gate was flagged as a possible security threat, which may be used by “anti-social elements”.

Entry fee evasion?

In 2013, a case was registered against a guide of a Bangladesh tourist group after he helped them enter the Taj Mahal premises on the pretext of namaaz on Friday. That was when the Archaeological Survey of India banned foreigners from attending namaaz at the site on Fridays.

The entry fee at the Taj Mahal for Indians is Rs 40 per head, while it goes up to Rs 530 each for nationals of member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Other foreigners pay Rs 1,000 per head.

In January, the Archaeological Survey of India also announced plans to cap the number of tourists at the monument to 40,000 a day.

Over the past year or so, Hindutva leaders have reiterated that the Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple known as Tejo Mahalaya. In October, the Uttar Pradesh government was criticised for leaving out the Unesco world heritage site from Uttar Pradesh’s official tourism booklet.