Following the Equator

Chapter LIX.

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 truth.
Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

Mark Twain

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 delicate touch.”

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 jewel casket?

“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 as to 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 beset.”

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 begins—5.

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 beruffled 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 competent attention.

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 beads—frozen tears.

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 heaven.

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.”

Following the Equator - Contents    |     Chapter LX.

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