Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist
but you have ceased to live.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
Often, the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
We were driven over Sir Colin Campbell's route by a British officer, and
when I arrived at the Residency I was so familiar with the road that I
could have led a retreat over it myself; but the compass in my head has
been out of order from my birth, and so, as soon as I was within the
battered Bailie Guard and turned about to review the march and imagine
the relieving forces storming their way along it, everything was upside
down and wrong end first in a moment, and I was never able to get
straightened out again. And now, when I look at the battle-plan, the
confusion remains. In me the east was born west, the battle-plans which
have the east on the right-hand side are of no use to me.
The Residency ruins are draped with flowering vines, and are impressive
and beautiful. They and the grounds are sacred now, and will suffer no
neglect nor be profaned by any sordid or commercial use while the British
remain masters of India. Within the grounds are buried the dead who gave
up their lives there in the long siege.
After a fashion, I was able to imagine the fiery storm that raged night
and day over the place during so many months, and after a fashion I could
imagine the men moving through it, but I could not satisfactorily place
the 200 women, and I could do nothing at all with the 250 children. I
knew by Lady Inglis' diary that the children carried on their small
affairs very much as if blood and carnage and the crash and thunder of a
siege were natural and proper features of nursery life, and I tried to
realize it; but when her little Johnny came rushing, all excitement,
through the din and smoke, shouting, "Oh, mamma, the white hen has laid
an egg!" I saw that I could not do it. Johnny's place was under the
bed. I could imagine him there, because I could imagine myself there;
and I think I should not have been interested in a hen that was laying an
egg; my interest would have been with the parties that were laying the
bombshells. I sat at dinner with one of those children in the Club's
Indian palace, and I knew that all through the siege he was perfecting
his teething and learning to talk; and while to me he was the most
impressive object in Lucknow after the Residency ruins, I was not able to
imagine what his life had been during that tempestuous infancy of his,
nor what sort of a curious surprise it must have been to him to be
marched suddenly out into a strange dumb world where there wasn't any
noise, and nothing going on. He was only forty-one when I saw him, a
strangely youthful link to connect the present with so ancient an episode
as the Great Mutiny.
By and by we saw Cawnpore, and the open lot which was the scene of
Moore's memorable defense, and the spot on the shore of the Ganges where
the massacre of the betrayed garrison occurred, and the small Indian
temple whence the bugle-signal notified the assassins to fall on. This
latter was a lonely spot, and silent. The sluggish river drifted by,
almost currentless. It was dead low water, narrow channels with vast
sandbars between, all the way across the wide bed; and the only living
thing in sight was that grotesque and solemn bald-headed bird, the
Adjutant, standing on his six-foot stilts, solitary on a distant bar,
with his head sunk between his shoulders, thinking; thinking of his
prize, I suppose--the dead Hindoo that lay awash at his feet, and whether
to eat him alone or invite friends. He and his prey were a proper accent
to that mournful place. They were in keeping with it, they emphasized
its loneliness and its solemnity.
And we saw the scene of the slaughter of the helpless women and children,
and also the costly memorial that is built over the well which contains
their remains. The Black Hole of Calcutta is gone, but a more reverent
age is come, and whatever remembrancer still exists of the moving and
heroic sufferings and achievements of the garrisons of Lucknow and
Cawnpore will be guarded and preserved.
In Agra and its neighborhood, and afterwards at Delhi, we saw forts,
mosques, and tombs, which were built in the great days of the Mohammedan
emperors, and which are marvels of cost, magnitude, and richness of
materials and ornamentation, creations of surpassing grandeur, wonders
which do indeed make the like things in the rest of the world seem tame
and inconsequential by comparison. I am not purposing to describe them.
By good fortune I had not read too much about them, and therefore was
able to get a natural and rational focus upon them, with the result that
they thrilled, blessed, and exalted me. But if I had previously
overheated my imagination by drinking too much pestilential literary hot
Scotch, I should have suffered disappointment and sorrow.
I mean to speak of only one of these many world-renowned buildings, the
Taj Mahal, the most celebrated construction in the earth. I had read a
great deal too much about it. I saw it in the daytime, I saw it in the
moonlight, I saw it near at hand, I saw it from a distance; and I knew
all the time, that of its kind it was the wonder of the world, with no
competitor now and no possible future competitor; and yet, it was not my
Taj. My Taj had been built by excitable literary people; it was solidly
lodged in my head, and I could not blast it out.
I wish to place before the reader some of the usual descriptions of the
Taj, and ask him to take note of the impressions left in his mind. These
descriptions do really state the truth--as nearly as the limitations of
language will allow. But language is a treacherous thing, a most unsure
vehicle, and it can seldom arrange descriptive words in such a way that
they will not inflate the facts--by help of the reader's imagination,
which is always ready to take a hand, and work for nothing, and do the
bulk of it at that.
I will begin with a few sentences from the excellent little local
guide-book of Mr. Satya Chandra Mukerji. I take them from here and there
in his description:
"The inlaid work of the Taj and the flowers and petals that are to
be found on all sides on the surface of the marble evince a most
That is true.
"The inlaid work, the marble, the flowers, the buds, the leaves, the
petals, and the lotus stems are almost without a rival in the whole
of the civilized world."
"The work of inlaying with stones and gems is found in the highest
perfection in the Taj."
Gems, inlaid flowers, buds, and leaves to be found on all sides. What do
you see before you? Is the fairy structure growing? Is it becoming a
"The whole of the Taj produces a wonderful effect that is equally
sublime and beautiful."
Then Sir William Wilson Hunter:
"The Taj Mahal with its beautiful domes, 'a dream of marble,' rises
on the river bank."
"The materials are white marble and red sandstone."
"The complexity of its design and the delicate intricacy of the
workmanship baffle description."
Sir William continues. I will italicize some of his words:
"The mausoleum stands on a raised marble platform at each of whose
corners rises a tall and slender minaret of graceful proportions and
of exquisite beauty. Beyond the platform stretch the two wings, one
of which is itself a mosque of great architectural merit. In the
center of the whole design the mausoleum occupies a square of 186
feet, with the angles deeply truncated so also form an unequal
octagon. The main feature in this central pile is the great dome,
which swells upward to nearly two-thirds of a sphere and tapers at
its extremity into a pointed spire crowned by a crescent. Beneath
it an enclosure of marble trellis-work surrounds the tomb of the
princess and of her husband, the Emperor. Each corner of the
mausoleum is covered by a similar though much smaller dome erected
on a pediment pierced with graceful Saracenic arches. Light is
admitted into the interior through a double screen of pierced
marble, which tempers the glare of an Indian sky while its whiteness
prevents the mellow effect from degenerating into gloom. The
internal decorations consist of inlaid work in precious stones, such
as agate, jasper, etc., with which every squandril or salient point
in the architecture is richly fretted. Brown and violet marble is
also freely employed in wreaths, scrolls, and lintels to relieve the
monotony of white wall. In regard to color and design, the interior
of the Taj may rank first in the world for purely decorative
workmanship; while the perfect symmetry of its exterior, once seen
can never be forgotten, nor the aerial grace of its domes, rising
like marble bubbles into the clear sky. The Taj represents the most
highly elaborated stage of ornamentation reached by the
Indo-Mohammedan builders, the stage in which the architect ends and
the jeweler begins. In its magnificent gateway the diagonal
ornamentation at the corners, which satisfied the designers of the
gateways of Itimad-ud-doulah and Sikandra mausoleums is superseded
by fine marble cables, in bold twists, strong and handsome. The
triangular insertions of white marble and large flowers have in like
manner given place to fine inlaid work. Firm perpendicular lines in
black marble with well proportioned panels of the same material are
effectively used in the interior of the gateway. On its top the
Hindu brackets and monolithic architraves of Sikandra are replaced
by Moorish carped arches, usually single blocks of red sandstone, in
the Kiosks and pavilions which adorn the roof. From the pillared
pavilions a magnificent view is obtained of the Taj gardens below,
with the noble Jumna river at their farther end, and the city and
fort of Agra in the distance. From this beautiful and splendid
gateway one passes up a straight alley shaded by evergreen trees
cooled by a broad shallow piece of water running along the middle of
the path to the Taj itself. The Taj is entirely of marble and gems.
The red sandstone of the other Mohammedan buildings has entirely
disappeared, or rather the red sandstone which used to form the
thickness of the walls, is in the Taj itself overlaid completely
with white marble, and the white marble is itself inlaid with
precious stones arranged in lovely patterns of flowers. A feeling
of purity impresses itself on the eye and the mind from the absence
of the coarser material which forms so invariable a material in Agra
architecture. The lower wall and panels are covered with tulips,
oleanders, and fullblown lilies, in flat carving on the white
marble; and although the inlaid work of flowers done in gems is very
brilliant when looked at closely, there is on the whole but little
color, and the all-prevailing sentiment is one of whiteness,
silence, and calm. The whiteness is broken only by the fine color
of the inlaid gems, by lines in black marble, and by delicately
written inscriptions, also in black, from the Koran. Under the dome
of the vast mausoleum a high and beautiful screen of open tracery in
white marble rises around the two tombs, or rather cenotaphs of the
emperor and his princess; and in this marvel of marble the carving
has advanced from the old geometrical patterns to a trellis-work of
flowers and foliage, handled with great freedom and spirit. The two
cenotaphs in the center of the exquisite enclosure have no carving
except the plain Kalamdan or oblong pen-box on the tomb of Emperor
Shah Jehan. But both cenotaphs are inlaid with flowers made of
costly gems, and with the ever graceful oleander scroll."
Bayard Taylor, after describing the details of the Taj, goes on to say:
"On both sides the palm, the banyan, and the feathery bamboo mingle
their foliage; the song of birds meets your ears, and the odor of
roses and lemon flowers sweetens the air. Down such a vista and
over such a foreground rises the Taj. There is no mystery, no sense
of partial failure about the Taj. A thing of perfect beauty and of
absolute finish in every detail, it might pass for the work of genii
who knew naught of the weaknesses and ills with which mankind are
All of these details are true. But, taken together, they state a
falsehood--to you. You cannot add them up correctly. Those writers know
the values of their words and phrases, but to you the words and phrases
convey other and uncertain values. To those writers their phrases have
values which I think I am now acquainted with; and for the help of the
reader I will here repeat certain of those words and phrases, and follow
them with numerals which shall represent those values--then we shall see
the difference between a writer's ciphering and a mistaken reader's--
Precious stones, such as agate, jasper, etc.--5.
With which every salient point is richly fretted--5.
First in the world for purely decorative workmanship--9.
The Taj represents the stage where the architect ends and the jeweler
The Taj is entirely of marble and gems--7.
Inlaid with precious stones in lovely patterns of flowers--5.
The inlaid work of flowers done in gems is very brilliant
(followed by a most important modification which the reader is sure to
read too carelessly)--2.
The vast mausoleum--5.
This marvel of marble--5.
The exquisite enclosure--5.
Inlaid with flowers made of costly gems--5.
A thing of perfect beauty and absolute finish--5.
Those details are correct; the figures which I have placed after them
represent quite fairly their individual, values. Then why, as a whole,
do they convey a false impression to the reader? It is because the
reader--beguiled by, his heated imagination--masses them in the wrong
way. The writer would mass the first three figures in the following way,
and they would speak the truth.
But the reader masses them thus--and then they tell a lie--559.
The writer would add all of his twelve numerals together, and then the
sum would express the whole truth about the Taj, and the truth only--63.
But the reader--always helped by his imagination--would put the figures
in a row one after the other, and get this sum, which would tell him a
noble big lie:
You must put in the commas yourself; I have to go on with my work.
The reader will always be sure to put the figures together in that wrong
way, and then as surely before him will stand, sparkling in the sun, a
gem-crusted Taj tall as the Matterhorn.
I had to visit Niagara fifteen times before I succeeded in getting my
imaginary Falls gauged to the actuality and could begin to sanely and
wholesomely wonder at them for what they were, not what I had expected
them to be. When I first approached them it was with my face lifted
toward the sky, for I thought I was going to see an Atlantic ocean
pouring down thence over cloud-vexed Himalayan heights, a sea-green wall
of water sixty miles front and six miles high, and so, when the toy
reality came suddenly into view--that beruiled little wet apron hanging
out to dry--the shock was too much for me, and I fell with a dull thud.
Yet slowly, surely, steadily, in the course of my fifteen visits, the
proportions adjusted themselves to the facts, and I came at last to
realize that a waterfall a hundred and sixty-five feet high and a quarter
of a mile wide was an impressive thing. It was not a dipperful to my
vanished great vision, but it would answer.
I know that I ought to do with the Taj as I was obliged to do with
Niagara--see it fifteen times, and let my mind gradually get rid of the
Taj built in it by its describers, by help of my imagination, and
substitute for it the Taj of fact. It would be noble and fine, then, and
a marvel; not the marvel which it replaced, but still a marvel, and fine
enough. I am a careless reader, I suppose--an impressionist reader; an
impressionist reader of what is not an impressionist picture; a reader
who overlooks the informing details or masses their sum improperly, and
gets only a large splashy, general effect--an effect which is not
correct, and which is not warranted by the particulars placed before me
particulars which I did not examine, and whose meanings I did not
cautiously and carefully estimate. It is an effect which is some
thirty-five or forty times finer than the reality, and is therefore a
great deal better and more valuable than the reality; and so, I ought
never to hunt up the reality, but stay miles away from it, and thus
preserve undamaged my own private mighty Niagara tumbling out of the
vault of heaven, and my own ineffable Taj, built of tinted mists upon
jeweled arches of rainbows supported by colonnades of moonlight. It is a
mistake for a person with an unregulated imagination to go and look at an
illustrious world's wonder.
I suppose that many, many years ago I gathered the idea that the Taj's
place in the achievements of man was exactly the place of the ice-storm
in the achievements of Nature; that the Taj represented man's supremest
possibility in the creation of grace and beauty and exquisiteness and
splendor, just as the ice-storm represents Nature's supremest possibility
in the combination of those same qualities. I do not know how long ago
that idea was bred in me, but I know that I cannot remember back to a
time when the thought of either of these symbols of gracious and
unapproachable perfection did not at once suggest the other. If I
thought of the ice-storm, the Taj rose before me divinely beautiful; if I
thought of the Taj, with its encrustings and inlayings of jewels, the
vision of the ice-storm rose. And so, to me, all these years, the Taj
has had no rival among the temples and palaces of men, none that even
remotely approached it it was man's architectural ice-storm.
Here in London the other night I was talking with some Scotch and English
friends, and I mentioned the ice-storm, using it as a figure--a figure
which failed, for none of them had heard of the ice-storm. One
gentleman, who was very familiar with American literature, said he had
never seen it mentioned in any book. That is strange. And I, myself,
was not able to say that I had seen it mentioned in a book; and yet the
autumn foliage, with all other American scenery, has received full and
The oversight is strange, for in America the ice-storm is an event. And
it is not an event which one is careless about. When it comes, the news
flies from room to room in the house, there are bangings on the doors,
and shoutings, "The ice-storm! the ice-storm!" and even the laziest
sleepers throw off the covers and join the rush for the windows. The
ice-storm occurs in midwinter, and usually its enchantments are wrought
in the silence and the darkness of the night. A fine drizzling rain
falls hour after hour upon the naked twigs and branches of the trees, and
as it falls it freezes. In time the trunk and every branch and twig are
incased in hard pure ice; so that the tree looks like a skeleton tree
made all of glass--glass that is crystal-clear. All along the underside
of every branch and twig is a comb of little icicles--the frozen drip.
Sometimes these pendants do not quite amount to icicles, but are round
The weather clears, toward dawn, and leaves a brisk pure atmosphere and a
sky without a shred of cloud in it--and everything is still, there is not
a breath of wind. The dawn breaks and spreads, the news of the storm
goes about the house, and the little and the big, in wraps and blankets,
flock to the window and press together there, and gaze intently out upon
the great white ghost in the grounds, and nobody says a word, nobody
stirs. All are waiting; they know what is coming, and they are waiting
waiting for the miracle. The minutes drift on and on and on, with not a
sound but the ticking of the clock; at last the sun fires a sudden sheaf
of rays into the ghostly tree and turns it into a white splendor of
glittering diamonds. Everybody catches his breath, and feels a swelling
in his throat and a moisture in his eyes-but waits again; for he knows
what is coming; there is more yet. The sun climbs higher, and still
higher, flooding the tree from its loftiest spread of branches to its
lowest, turning it to a glory of white fire; then in a moment, without
warning, comes the great miracle, the supreme miracle, the miracle
without its fellow in the earth; a gust of wind sets every branch and
twig to swaying, and in an instant turns the whole white tree into a
spouting and spraying explosion of flashing gems of every conceivable
color; and there it stands and sways this way and that, flash! flash!
flash! a dancing and glancing world of rubies, emeralds, diamonds,
sapphires, the most radiant spectacle, the most blinding spectacle, the
divinest, the most exquisite, the most intoxicating vision of fire and
color and intolerable and unimaginable splendor that ever any eye has
rested upon in this world, or will ever rest upon outside of the gates of
By, all my senses, all my faculties, I know that the icestorm is Nature's
supremest achievement in the domain of the superb and the beautiful; and
by my reason, at least, I know that the Taj is man's ice-storm.
In the ice-storm every one of the myriad ice-beads pendant from twig and
branch is an individual gem, and changes color with every motion caused
by the wind; each tree carries a million, and a forest-front exhibits the
splendors of the single tree multiplied by a thousand.
It occurs to me now that I have never seen the ice-storm put upon canvas,
and have not heard that any painter has tried to do it. I wonder why
that is. Is it that paint cannot counterfeit the intense blaze of a
sun-flooded jewel? There should be, and must be, a reason, and a good one,
why the most enchanting sight that Nature has created has been neglected
by the brush.
Often, the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict
truth. The describers of the Taj have used the word gem in its strictest
sense--its scientific sense. In that sense it is a mild word, and
promises but little to the eye-nothing bright, nothing brilliant, nothing
sparkling, nothing splendid in the way of color. It accurately describes
the sober and unobtrusive gem-work of the Taj; that is, to the very
highly-educated one person in a thousand; but it most falsely describes
it to the 999. But the 999 are the people who ought to be especially
taken care of, and to them it does not mean quiet-colored designs wrought
in carnelians, or agates, or such things; they know the word in its wide
and ordinary sense only, and so to them it means diamonds and rubies and
opals and their kindred, and the moment their eyes fall upon it in print
they see a vision of glorious colors clothed in fire.
These describers are writing for the "general," and so, in order to make
sure of being understood, they ought to use words in their ordinary
sense, or else explain. The word fountain means one thing in Syria,
where there is but a handful of people; it means quite another thing in
North America, where there are 75,000,000. If I were describing some
Syrian scenery, and should exclaim, "Within the narrow space of a quarter
of a mile square I saw, in the glory of the flooding moonlight, two
hundred noble fountains--imagine the spectacle!" the North American would
have a vision of clustering columns of water soaring aloft, bending over
in graceful arches, bursting in beaded spray and raining white fire in
the moonlight-and he would be deceived. But the Syrian would not be
deceived; he would merely see two hundred fresh-water springs--two
hundred drowsing puddles, as level and unpretentious and unexcited as so
many door-mats, and even with the help of the moonlight he would not lose
his grip in the presence of the exhibition. My word "fountain" would be
correct; it would speak the strict truth; and it would convey the strict
truth to the handful of Syrians, and the strictest misinformation to the
North American millions. With their gems--and gems--and more gems--and
gems again--and still other gems--the describers of the Taj are within
their legal but not their moral rights; they are dealing in the strictest
scientific truth; and in doing it they succeed to admiration in telling
"what ain't so."
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