India Travel
Now tonga tourism at the Taj
Feb 23, 2007 - 8:18:31 AM

Agra, Feb 23 - Decorated horse driven carriages, colourful cycle rickshaws, camel carts, battery-operated cars and electric buses - visitors to the Taj Mahal can now take their pick and enjoy a 500-metre lazy ride right from the parking lot till the entrance to the famed monument to love.

And no worries of spoiling the pearly white marble exterior either - it's all eco-friendly.

With the annual 10-day Taj Mahotsav that began Feb 18, Agra has invited a large number of foreign tourists. The atmosphere is almost festive and speed crazy westerners seem to be enjoying the treat. The hotels in Agra are cashing in on the craze and are hiring horse drawn carriages, or tongas as they are popularly known, and rickshaws for groups of tourists who bump their way through with a bemused look.

'The foreigners who come to Agra enjoy rickshaw rides. Some hotels now have their own beautified rickshaws that take them on a leisurely tour of the Taj through the narrow lanes of Taj Ganj, or to Etmauddaula across the river via the crowded Belanganj area,' said Jagdish, who owns a cycle rickshaw repair shop in the Jeoni Mandi area.

'The local rickshawpullers, many of whom have picked up a smattering of English, cater mainly to foreign tourists. In the Taj Ganj area you can see a number of decorated rickshaws with fancy chimes and photos of film stars adding to the charm of the conventional vehicle pedalled by a Romeo-type youth merrily singing the latest film songs to entertain his white guests,' said hotelier Sandeep.

To check pollution in the vicinity, district authorities have also recently introduced a fleet of 20 CNG buses to augment the local bus service.

'These colourful eco-friendly modes of transport send out a positive message of our commitment to keeping the environment healthy and safe for the heritage monuments,' said a pollution control board official.

Apart from encouraging tourism, at least some gains are filtering down to the humble cycle rickshaw puller and the tongawallas, otherwise looked down upon by motorists and abused by cops. Indeed, in the current craze for speed, their contribution to bringing down the levels of air pollution and providing the local residents with a cheaper mode of transport has been generally ignored.

The Uttar Pradesh Tourism Cooperation has plans to work out tonga packages to various sites in the heritage city. The only hitch is the distance between monuments. A two-kilometre traffic jam between the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort could easily take the romance out of the tour.

And that just wouldn't do in this city of the Taj.

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