Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How to visit Taj Mahal by moonlight (or not!)

Many tourists tell me they're super excited about visiting the Taj at moonlight. It sounds fantastic, doesn't it? I usually talk them out of it, because I don't think its a good idea (see end of article for my advice). But if you do want to go, here are the details:

When is it open
The Taj Mahal is open for viewing by moonlight for 5 nights each month. These 5 nights include the full moon night, as well as two nights before and two nights after the full moon night. 

If any of these 5 dates fall on a Friday, there will not be any moonlight viewing on that night. In addition the Taj is also closed in the daytime on all Fridays.

There is also no moonlight visit during the month of Ramzan.

The full moon dates for Apr 2015 - Mar 2016 (the Indian financial year) are below:
  • Saturday April 4
  • Monday May 4
  • Tuesday Jun 2
  • Friday July 31 
  • Saturday August 29
  • Monday September 28
  • Tuesday October 27
  • Wednesday November 25
  • Friday December 25
  • Saturday January 23
  • Monday February 22
  • Wednesday March 23
I'll say this again: Please note that you can view the Taj 2 nights before, and 2 nights after these dates. But if any of the 5 days falls on a Friday, you cannot view on that day. So for example, in April, the full moon night is Saturday April 4, so you can view on April 2, 4, 5 and 6, but not on April 3 which is a Friday.

In the list above, there is no viewing date in first week of July due to Ramzan (which is celebrated between 19th June to 18th July).

How does the viewing happen:
Only 400 people are allowed to view the monument per night.

Entry is allowed in 8 batches of 50 people each, beginning at 8:30 p.m. and ending at 12:00 midnight.

Each group has only 30 minutes.

You cannot go up to the famous big white tomb building. Access is allowed only until the Red Sandstone Platform of the main gate. I have shown in the picture below, what this main gate looks like.
Source: Air Pano

Video cameras, tripods, mobile phones, cigarettes and hand bags are NOT permitted. Only handheld still cameras and binoculars are permitted without any extra charge. Security is very strict, and there are full body checks

Buying tickets:
Tickets for moonlight viewing are issued a day in advance, from the counter at the Archaeological Survey of India Agra office (22, The Mall, Agra 282001). They cannot be bought on the same day.

The counter is open from 10 am until 5 pm, however tickets are sold on a first-come-first-serve basis and get sold out pretty quickly. As I said earlier, only 400 tickets are available for a day.  To avoid crowds and security issues, there is a rationing system. They allot tickets starting with the first batch (8:30 pm batch).

To buy the ticket, you have to fill an application form. For overseas visitors to India, this includes providing a scanned copy of the id page of your passport with Name, Gender, Passport Number, Age, Nationality. For Indian visitors, the form asks for scanned copy of any valid ID Proof, as well as details such as Full Name, Age and Gender. Tickets are non-transferable. They are computer-generated and include these identity details.

The current rates for entrance tickets (as of Feb 2015) are below:
  • Adults: Foreigners Rs  750/-, Indians Rs  510/-
  • Children (3 to 15 years):  Foreigners Rs 500/-, Indians Rs  500/-
If you are going with a licensed guide, then there is no free ticket for the guide. The guide also needs to buy a ticket. If you wish to cancel a ticket, you can do so before 1 p.m. of the date of viewing. There will be a 25% cancellation charge.

You are supposed to show up at the Shilpgram Parking 30 minutes before the timeslot allotted to you. Your documents and ticket will be inspected and then you will be taken by battery-operated vehicle to the Taj. There is no charge for this vehicle ride.

My advice
Avoid the moonlight viewing, unless the ASI changes their rules and actually allows access to the white marble building. The beauty of the Taj is best seen in daylight, in my view, when you can get close to the monument, and go right into the building.

Source: A blog by Clayfied College students
In winter, visibility is poor at night, it is foggy and you cannot see much. It is also very cold. In the monsoons, rain may result in poor overall moonlight experience.

This is not a particularly romantic experience, especially the security process and being herded together with 48 other people on the platform. If you go with high expectations, you will be disappointed.

I've included a real-life view of what the Taj looks like by moonlight. It's from a trip report by some college students from Australia. There are lots of (photoshopped) fancy photos of the Taj at moonlight on the internet.

If you do want go for the moonlight view, then the important thing to note while planning your trip is that you still need to go again the next day to actually see the Taj. So plan to spend more time in Agra (ideally 2 nights) and make sure you are ready to spend again on the ticket.

If you have to buy the ticket yourselves:
Day 1 - Delhi to Agra (4hrs) by road. Buy the moonlight viewing ticket, visit Agra Fort, Itmad-ud-daulah's Tomb, Sikandra. See sunset view of Taj from Mehtab Bagh on the other side of river.  Overnight Agra
Day 2 - Visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Return and rest. Visit Fatehpur Sikri. Return and have dinner. Go for the moonlight view. Overnight Agra
Day 3 - Late breakfast and depart from Agra

If you have someone to buy the ticket for you:
Day 1 - Delhi to Agra (4hrs) by road. Visit Agra Fort, Itmad-ud-daulah's Tomb, Sikandra. See sunset view of Taj from Mehtab Bagh on the other side of river.  Moonlight view of Taj. Overnight Agra
Day 2 - Visit the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri; depart from Agra.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Cannabis / Ganja in India

I saw these cannabis leaves in the flower market at Chhatarpur. It was "Shravan Somwar", a Monday in the Shravan (monsoon) month. This day is dedicated to Lord Shiva, so probably the leaves were in the market for worshippers to offer at the temple. It is currently illegal to cultivate cannabis (except by special license, for medical / restricted use).
Cannabis leaves, Chhatarpur Flower Market, Delhi
In India cannabis grows wild in the Himalayan foothills. While cool high altitudes are ideal, it is a very adaptable plant, and I've seen it growing wild in the Thar desert. It even grows well in the warm and moist lands of south India (as you can see from the photo below). 
Ganja confiscated in Tamil Nadu by police, photo by The Hindu
Although cannabis cultivation is illegal now, it was not always so. Under Mughal rule, cultivation of marijuana was not restricted, and cannabis was grown throughout the country. People often grew it in their homes, or just collected it from places where it grew wild. 

The British decided to control and tax cannabis (good source of income!). So they passed an act in 1881, allowing cultivation only under license. Imports were restricted, and everything that was grown in India was put in bonded government warehouses. From there, it was sold to licensed vendors after duty had been imposed and levied. Thus the government coffers were enriched by something which was otherwise widely and cheaply available. 

In 1893, to study and understand the effects of cannabis better (and under pressure from the Temperance movement in Britain), the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was formed. The commission investigated the usage of cannabis in India, and produced a 3000+ page report in 1894, after interviewing and studying responses from 1,200 "doctors, coolies, yogis, fakirs, heads of lunatic asylums, bhang peasants, tax gatherers, smugglers, army officers, hemp dealers, ganja palace operators and the clergy". 
Some of the people studied by the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission
The first thing that emerged from the study was how widespread and common the usage of cannabis was.

Fakirs with their evening preparations of ganja and bhang
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK

In Delhi, the IHDC observed that "both the rich and the poor among Hindus indulge in this narcotic, whereas only the lower class of Muhammedans partake of it. The habitual indulgers are to be found in saises (horse handlers), dhobis (washermen), faquirs (holy men), labourers, kahars (palanquin bearers), and halalkhors (sweepers / scavengers). They may be found in groups of 20 or 30 from three to five in the afternoon in the Kerdun Shuraf, Panch Kua, Eed Ghar or on the banks of the Jumna, clubbing together for a smoke [costing] from a dumrie to a pic (low value copper coin) or two. The pipe is passed round until they become merry or angry and too often quite intoxicated. Brahmins (priests), mahajuns (merchants) and bunyas (traders) generally smoke charas at their own houses every day in the afternoon." 

After extensive study, the Committee finally concluded that "the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all." They also acknowledged the plant's usage for medicinal / therapeutic reasons. 

I found it very interesting to read this summary of the Commission's findings:

"Viewing the subject generally, it may be added that the moderate use of these drugs is the rule, and that the excessive use is comparatively exceptional. The moderate use practically produces no ill effects. In all but the most exceptional cases, the injury from habitual moderate use is not appreciable. 

The excessive use may certainly be accepted as very injurious, though it must be admitted that in many excessive consumers the injury is not clearly marked. The injury done by the excessive use is, however, confined almost exclusively to the consumer himself; the effect on society is rarely appreciable. 

It has been the most striking feature in this inquiry to find how little the effects of hemp drugs have obtruded themselves on observation. The large number of witnesses of all classes who professed never to have seen these effects, the vague statements made by many who professed to have observed them, the very few witnesses who could so recall a case as to give any definite account of it, and the manner in which a large proportion of these cases broke down on the first attempt to examine them, are facts which combine to show most clearly how little injury society has hitherto sustained from hemp drugs

It sounds as if the Commission, after all its investigations, decided that the whole cannabis thing was quite harmless :) See full report here if interested.

But the Commission's report was ignored, and cannabis has since then continued to be treated as a dangerous drug. In 1925, India became a party to the International Opium Convention, which also contains provisions relating to the international control of cannabis, its derivatives and preparations.

Currently there's a piece of legislation called the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, which came into effect in 1985. Under this act, it is illegal for anyone in India to produce/cultivate, possess, sell, purchase, transport, store, and/or consume any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance, cannabis included. In 2014, this law was amended to allow some medical exceptions.  But for the large part, it is illegal to cultivate cannabis, and any attempts are met with raids and confiscations.

In spite of the law, there is still cultivation taking place, mostly illegally. There is wide social acceptance of cannabis due to cultural reasons (being associated with Shiva) and also due to its long standing and well established therapeutic properties (it is used in traditional medicine).

There are three forms of cannabis drugs in India - Bhang, Ganja and Charas.

Bhang Lassi, in Jaisalmer
Bhang is made from the dried matured leaves of the cannabis plant. The narcotic principle is best when the plant is mature, so leaves are plucked at the peak flowering time. Generally in the plains they harvest in summer (May and June). In the hills, July and early August are the collection time. The dried leaves are then sold in the market. To make bhang, a paste of the leaves is made, and then mixed with something nice to make it edible. For example, cold milk or yoghurt and spices are commonly added to make a bhaang lassi. But the sadhus and babas who are used to this stuff on a regular basis often just chew the leaves (especially when on the move and when they have no time or proper location to make any preparations).

Unlike bhang, Ganja is smoked, not eaten or drunk. Ganja is made from the dried flowering tops of female plants and twigs, so during the cultivation process, the male staminate are clipped by a 'ganja doctor' (yes, I kid you not, there is such a guy!). The ganja doctor is a guy who has expertise in identifying male/female flowers, he goes through the field cutting down all male staminate to ensure that there is no fruiting.

Charas is a sort of resin which is secreted by the leaves, young twigs, bark of stem and even the young fruit of the female cannabis plant. Indian varieties don't yeild much resin. In pre-British days, excellent charas came from China, from what is called Chinese Turkestan. It was one of the important items of trade between central Asia and India. But that trade has ended, and now if you want good charas, you have to go looking for it in the remote hill villages of Himachal Pradesh, where they make a hand-pressed version that is said to be among the best in the world.