Days after a petition seeking “opening of 22 sealed doors” of the Taj Mahal in Agra was dismissed by the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court on 12 May, news emerged that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had released some photos of the rooms behind the doors that are at the centre of the “origin” controversy.
A 44-page-long newsletter was uploaded on the ASI website on 5 May on explorations, discoveries, and excavations, among other things, from across ASI circles in the country.
On page 19 and 20 are details of “structural repairs to the gateways located in the Tajganj area and around the Taj Mahal,” as well as “the work of maintenance of underground cells on the river side (of Taj Mahal).”
An ASI spokesperson told The Quint that the latter are “photos of the cells that are mentioned in the petition which was later dismissed by the Court.”
The Quint spoke to ASI officials in the Agra circle, as well as at the Delhi headquarters about the newsletter and the photos.
A senior ASI official clarified that the newsletter “is in no way a response to the petition that sought to open the 22 sealed doors,” and that its publication is “purely coincidental.”
Manu Sharma, a spokesperson of ASI, explained, “We have been running a newsletter since November 2021 but there have been a few delays. The newsletter that was uploaded on 5 May which carries photos of these cells undergoing repair work is of January. Our November 2021 newsletter was published in December 2021, and our December 2021 newsletter was published in February 2022. The January one, too, got pushed to May.”
Sharma said, “There was a delay in uploading the newsletter on the website as for some time many members of the team had COVID-19, and there were other technical issues too.”
Professor Alok Tripathi, Additional Director-General (Archaeology), writes in the editorial of the newsletter: “Process to get ISSN number for this periodical was also initiated, but due to lengthy process and time consumed in fulfilling basic requirements the release got delayed.”
The ASI newsletter has four photos of before and after conservation with accompanying text: “The work of maintenance of underground cells on the river side was taken up. Decayed and disintegrated lime plaster was removed and replaced by laying of lime plaster and traditional lime processing before application.”
Why Are the 22 Doors Sealed?
A senior ASI official told The Quint that “as per the The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological. Sites and Remains Act, 1958, if the Central government wants, it can temporarily or permanently close a part of a monument. There are various reasons for shutting down – one being security of both the visitors and the monument.”
The official said:
“Monuments often get defaced by public, we have all seen it and read about it. Areas that are deep inside a monument and are open to public require staff and good lighting. If an area is in the basement then we need to establish and constantly re-establish how strong it is. Some monuments have footfall of 20,000 people daily, if 500 people reach such an area in one go then what will happen? It’s a logistical nightmare.”
The official added that the “load bearing capacity of a certain portion of a monument may be less in comparison to people that visit, which in turn can harm both the monument and the visitors.” He said that when a monument was built, areas were constructed keeping “functionality” in mind, and now they are places for tourists, so “ASI has to be mindful.”
What Are These Sealed Doors?
KK Muhammad, former regional director (North), ASI, told The Quint, that these “22 doors are arched galleries similar to the ones at Humayun’s Tomb, Safdarjung’s Tomb, and Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan’s tomb in Delhi.”
Dismissing the theory that it’s a “temple,” the former ASI official Muhhamad, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2019, said that “if it was a temple, there would be a garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum), antarala (a foyer), and a mandapa (pillared hall). There is no such thing that exists there. I never saw it despite the number of times I visited the area. Those under me also never saw a temple or a shivling there. I don’t understand where the petitioners are seeing these things. These are all just ways to create problems.”
He said that the galleries were built to “raise the height of the monument.” Till a few decades ago, access to the area was allowed but it was later stopped. Muhammad said, “apart from the fact that it’s a logistical issue, there is also nothing to be seen here.”
What Was the Petition About?
On 4 May, Rajneesh Singh – the media in-charge of BJP in Ayodhya – filed a petition seeking direction for opening of “sealed doors” in a bid to solve the “controversy” around the Taj Mahal’s origins.
The Indian Express stated that the petitioner wanted the 22 sealed doors to be opened because “historian” PN Oak who wrote Taj Mahal: the True Story theorised that “within these rooms lies the Shiva temple.”
The petition was dismissed by the court on 12 May, and a bench of Justices DK Upadhyay and Subhash Vidyarthi, while hearing the matter, told the petitioner, "If they have said that rooms are closed because of security reasons, then that's the information. If you're not satisfied, then challenge it."
The Court said to the petitioner, “Please enroll yourself in MA, then go for NET, JRF and if any university denies you research on such a topic, then come to us.”