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The Ineffable Taj Mahal

Published on October 24, 2006, by in Agra, India, Mark Twain, Taj Mahal.

I’m not going to try to describe the Taj Mahal. To do so is impossible. Far better writers than me have said so.

Confronted with it at dawn, and then at sunset, and again in the moonlight, Mark Twain declined to describe the monument except in an oblique way. The handful of pages he devotes to the Taj Mahal include the most candid passages he ever wrote about the limits of his skills.

If you want to read them, click on this link to Following the Equator and then read pages 570 to 581.

He knows – and acknowledges – that his readers expect that whatever he writes, equal to the enormity and beauty of the Taj, will be the best description he has ever written of anything, anywhere. So he starts out by saying that readers’ impressions formed by such descriptions are “lies.”

Yes, Twain uses the word, “lies.

He then quotes the descriptions of others at length to demonstrate what he means. He dissects and compares their descriptions using a complex and supercilious scorecard. He talks about Niagra Falls. He wanders off into an anecdote, told years later in a London pub, about an ice-storm.

BUT HE NEVER ACTUALLY DESCRIBES THE TAJ MAHAL.

That was the wisest, most honest, most artful and most accurate thing he could have done.

Today, as I approached the grounds of the monument, I kept hearing his sharp, world-weary drawl in my head, telling me to forget anything I have ever read about it. He had prepared me to see it fresh and clean, untainted, untouched, unfiltered by anyone else’s words; he prepared me to see it as the ineffable (his sole descriptive adjective) thing that it is.

He ends his visit to the Taj Mahal on a page headed “Deceptive Words” with the statement,

With their gems – and gems – and more gems – and gems again – 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,”

I will follow The Master’s perfect example. I will describe the events leading up to, during and after my own visit to the shrine. I will tell how I got there, who I saw do what, who said what to whom, what I did there, what happened afterwards, etc. – but not a word, not one single descriptive adjective about the Taj itself. His adjective is the only one I will ever use.

Yes, there will be photos. I took hundreds. I’ll show a small selection in mini-albums within certain posts and I’ll explain why and how I took them and, in some cases, explain who or what is in them. But if you have seen the Taj Mahal with your own eyes and stood within the embrace of its magic, you know that photos are no better at conveying the experience than their more evocative cousin, ineffable words.

If you have never been there – go. As one of my photos demonstrates, visit the the Taj Mahal, and share its  ineffable embrace with someone you love. (click here, scroll down, click thumbnail of Taj Mahal to enlarge)

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