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Birth bicker clouds Taj fest
- Scaled-down celebrations kick off today

Agra, Sept. 26: Controversies abound about the actual date of completion of the Taj Mahal on the eve of its 350th anniversary celebrations.

The dispute over the date and a row between the central and state governments, which delayed court clearance of the events, have cast a shadow on the grandiose plans that have been watered down considerably.

The celebrations were to kick off tomorrow at Mehtab Bagh on the banks of the Yamuna behind an illuminated Taj. However, governor T.V. Rajeswar Rao will now release a special stamp at a small ground near Agra Fort ' a grim, red stone structure further up the river that can accommodate about 500 people ' to inaugurate the festivities.

Balloons and pigeons would also be released at the function, which will be attended by chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. However, the monument will not be illuminated and there will be no night viewing as a case on this proposal is pending before the Supreme Court.

The controversy over the date centres on a belief among historians that the monument had been completed between late 1643 and 1648, putting its 350th anniversary between 1993 and 1998. An inscription on the main gate of the Taj clearly records that the monument was completed in 1648.

However, officials of the state's tourism department point out that all the sides of the monument might not have been completed by then. The department's website declares that it took 22 years to complete the monument, which would place the anniversary date in 2003-04.

The compulsion of the department, which wants to cash in on the tourism prospects of the monument, to ignore the specific date is understandable.

The state government is keen to augment its income from tourism and the key to this is the Taj, which is expected to increase the flow of visitors to Uttar Pradesh. Last year about 22,00,000 Indians and 8,00,000 foreigners visited the Taj.

About 20,000 labourers had toiled for years to build the shrine with its splendid dome and minarets. The walls are of marble inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones and the exterior is of white marble.

'This is just a start. We cannot call this a D-Day. The celebrations will reflect the commitment to what we would be doing yearlong,' said the joint director of the Uttar Pradesh tourism department of the rather lacklustre preparation for the inauguration.

'Our mission is to place the Taj on the itinerary of foreign tourists. The competition is very high now as a number of destinations are coming up,' said Johra Chatterjee, the secretary of Uttar Pradesh's tourism and culture ministry.

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