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Last Updated: Monday, 27 September, 2004, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Taj Mahal birthday party begins
Balloons released with Taj Mahal in background
Balloons and pigeons were released to mark the anniversary
Celebrations to mark the 350th anniversary of India's most famous monument, the Taj Mahal, have begun in the northern city of Agra.

Festivites kicked off with the release of pigeons and balloons by the Yamuna river near the marble mausoleum.

Officials plan a series of anniversary events over the next six months.

The Taj Mahal, revered as a symbol of love, was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth.

We were expected all-night parties. But I don't see anything out here
Alain Appel, tourist

"It's the beginning of a great journey," said chief organiser DK Burman after the pigeons were released.

India's Supreme Court, however, dashed tourists' hopes of seeing the Taj at night by rejecting a government request to open the monument after dark.

The court also refused to allow any cultural programmes within 500 metres of the 17th century monument.

Tourism officials from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh welcomed tourists at the monument with marigold garlands.

'Low key'

The highlight of Monday's celebrations was an evening concert by Indian musician Shiv Kumar Sharma and singer Hariharan.

The BBC's Geeta Pandey in Agra says Bollywood celebrities were among the 800 VIPs invited to the concert.

Taj Mahal, India
The Taj Mahal drew over three million tourists last year
Some tourists and tour operators, however, were disappointed with the lack of obvious fanfare in feting India's most celebrated monument.

"We were expected all-night parties. But I don't see anything out here," Alain Appel, a tourist from Switzerland, told the Associated Press.

One reason for the low-key celebrations is India's Supreme Court's reluctance to allow ceremonies at the Taj Mahal since a pop music concert in 1996 reportedly ended up damaging the monument.

This year's celebrations, therefore, are happening at the red sandstone Agra Fort about two kilometres (1.5 miles) away.

Local tourism officials' plans to reopen the Taj Mahal on moonlit nights have also come to nought with the Supreme Court rejecting the request on Monday.

The federal government has shut out tourists from the 17th Century mausoleum since 1984, when it was fighting militants in the Indian state of Punjab and feared possible revenge attacks.

Controversy

There is little chance of the Taj remaining open to tourists every night, because that would require putting up floodlights.

Artificial lighting is not allowed at this World Heritage site because it could damage the monument.

The celebrations at Taj have been also marred by controversy over the monument's construction date.

Some scholars insist that the Taj was ready by the end of 1643 or early 1644, so the monument's 350th anniversary happened a decade ago.

"Someone, somewhere goofed up somewhat on the Taj Mahal's birthday dates," historian Ramesh Chand Sharma told French news agency AFP.

The Taj drew over three million tourists last year, far more than any other Indian tourist attraction.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The BBC's Martha Dixon
"The Taj has attracted many world leaders"



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