NEW DELHI — President Obama will not visit the Taj Mahal on his trip to India and will instead fly to Saudi Arabia to pay respects to the family of the late King Abdullah, who died this week at age 90.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama are due to arrive in India Sunday to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade on Monday — a first for an American president. They were to visit the Taj Mahal the following day.
Instead, they now plan to travel to Riyadh on Tuesday to offer condolences to the family of the king, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.
Vice President Joe Biden was supposed to lead the U.S. delegation to Saudi Arabia next week. The schedule was changed when it became clear that Biden’s arrival coincided with Obama’s departure from India, Earnest said.
“Accordingly, we adjusted the schedule in coordination with the Indian Government so that the president would be able to depart India following his speech on Tuesday to stop in Riyadh during the return trip to meet with King Salman and other Saudi officials and offer his condolences on behalf of the American people,” Earnest said.
Earnest said Obama “regrets” that he will be unable to visit Agra, the city where the Taj Mahal is located.
In recent days, the area around the Taj, which is about three hours southeast of the capital, was in virtual lock down as security advance teams from the United States prepared for what had been Obama’s planned arrival. Workers busily cleaned the fountains and polished the monument’s white marble — that has turned yellow in recent years due to India’s heavy air pollution.
In addition to the Saudi King’s death, police in Agra said Saturday that Indian security officials and the Secret Service had clashed about some of the security details of the visit, including the odd fact that Obama would have had to travel within the grounds in a battery-operated golf cart, as traditional automobiles are not allowed.
When Obama last visited India in 2010, a visit to the Taj was ruled out because of security concerns. The couple settled for a visit to Humayan’s Tomb, another lovely Mughal tomb in New Delhi thought to be the inspiration for the Taj.
The schedule change means the president and first lady will miss out yet again on a visit to what’s often considered one of the most romantic sites in the world. The soaring white marble mausoleum was built in the 17th Century by the Mughal King Shan Jahan in memory of his late wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Critics in the United States had carped that Obama’s India visit — which came fast on the heels of his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the fall — was an unnecessary distraction from domestic politics too soon after Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
“President Obama crosses into one of the indisputable stages of a lame duck presidency this week. That is the non-essential foreign travel stage,” Associated Press White House reporter Julie Pace said last week CNN. “He’s going to India basically for a parade and a visit to the Taj Mahal.”
Rama Lakshmi and Katie Zezima contributed to this report.