The Soul of the Empress Mumtaz-I-Mahal, 1914 – excerpt from ‘A New Model of the Universe’. P.D.Ouspensky
…….”I passed through the arch and out on to the broad stone platform, and stopped to look about me. Straight in front of me and right across the garden led a long broad avenue of dark cypresses, divided down the middle by a strip of water with a row of jutting arms of fountains. At the further end the avenue of cypresses was closed by the white cloud of the Taj Mahal. At the sides of the Taj, a little below it, the cupolas of two large mosques could be seen under the trees.
I walked slowly along the main avenue in the direction of the white building, by the strip of water with its fountains. The first thing that struck me, and that I had not foreseen, was the immense size of the Taj. It is in fact a very large structure, but it appears even larger than it is, owing chiefly to the ingenious design of the builders,
who surrounded it with a garden and so arranged the gates and avenues that the building from this side is not seen all at once, but is disclosed little by little as you approach it. I realised that everything about it had been exactly planned and calculated, and that everything was designed to supplement and reinforce the chief impression. It became clear to me why it was that in photographs the Taj Mahal had appeared unfinished and almost plain. It cannot be separated from the garden and from the mosques on either side, which appear as its continuation. I saw now why the minarets at the corners of the marble platform on which the main building stands had given me the impression of a defect. For in photographs I had seen the picture of the Taj as ending on both sides with these minarets. Actually, it does not end there, but imperceptibly passes into the garden and the adjacent buildings. And again, the minarets are not actually seen in all their height as they are in photographs. From the avenue along which I walked only their tops were visible behind the trees.
The white building of the mausoleum itself was still far away, and as I walked towards it, it rose before me higher and higher. Though in the uncertain and changing light of the crescent moon I could distinguish none of the details, a strange sense of expectation forced me to continue looking intently, as if something was about to be revealed to me.
In the shadow of the cypresses it was nearly dark; the garden was filled with the scent of flowers, above all with that of jasmine, and peacocks were miauing. And this sound harmonised strangely with the surroundings, and somehow still further intensified the feeling of expectation which was coming over me.
Already I could see, brightly outlined in front of me, the central portion of the Taj Mahal rising from the high marble platform. A little light glimmered through the doors.
I reached the middle of the path leading from the arched entrance to the mausoleum. Here, in the centre of the avenue, is a square tank with lotuses in it and with marble seats on one side.
In the faint light of the half moon the Taj Mahal appeared luminous. Wonderfully soft, but at the same time quite distinct, white cupolas and white minarets came into view against the pale sky, and seemed to radiate a light of their own.
I sat on one of the marble seats and looked at the Taj Mahal, trying to seize and impress on my memory all the details of the building itself as I saw it and of everything else around me.
I could not have said what went on in my mind during this time, nor could I have been sure whether I thought about anything at all, but gradually, growing stronger and stronger, a strange feeling stole over me, which no words can describe.
Reality, that everyday actual reality in which we live, seemed somehow to be lifted, to fade and float away; but it did not disappear, it only underwent some strange sort of transformation, losing all actuality; every object in it, taken by itself, lost its ordinary meaning and became something quite different. In place of the familiar, habitual reality another reality opened out, a reality which usually we neither know, nor see, nor feel, but which is the one true and genuine reality.
I feel and know that words cannot convey what I wish to say. Only those will understand me who have themselves experienced something of this kind, who know the ” taste ” of such feelings.
Before me glimmered the small light in the doors of the Taj Mahal. The white cupolas and white minarets seemed to stir in the changing light of the half moon. From the garden came the scent of jasmine and the miauing of the peacocks.
I had the sensation of being in two worlds at once. In the first place, the ordinary world of things and people had entirely changed, and it was ridiculous even to think of it; so imaginary, artificial and unreal did it appear now. Everything that belonged to this world had become remote, foreign and unintelligible to me— and I myself most of all, this very I that had arrived two hours before with all sorts of luggage and had hurried off to see the Taj Mahal by moonlight. All this—and the whole of the life of which it formed a part— seemed a puppet-show, which moreover was most clumsily put together and crudely painted, thus not resembling any reality whatsoever. Quite as grotesquely senseless and tragically ineffective appeared all my previous thoughts about the Taj Mahal and its riddle.
The riddle was here before me, but now it was no longer a riddle. It had been made a riddle only by that absurd, non-existent reality from which I had looked at it. And now I experienced the wonderful joy of liberation, as if I had come out into the light from some deep underground passages.
Yes, this was the mystery of death! But a revealed and visible mystery. And there was nothing dreadful or terrifying about it. On the contrary, it was infinite radiance and joy.
Writing this now, I find it strange to recall that there was scarcely any transitional state. From my usual sensation of myself and everything else I passed into this new state immediately, while I was in this garden, in the avenue of cypresses, with the white outline of the Taj Mahal in front of me.
I remember that an unusually rapid stream of thoughts passed through my mind, as if they were detached from me and choosing or finding their own way.
At one time my thought seemed to be concentrated upon the artists who had built the Taj Mahal. I knew that they had been Sufis, whose mystical philosophy, inseparable from poetry, has become the esotericism of Mahomedanism and in brilliant and earthly forms of passion and joy expressed the ideas of eternity, unreality and renunciation. And here the image of the Empress Arjumand Banu and her memorial, ” the most beautiful in the world “, became by their invisible sides connected with the idea of death, yet death not as annihilation, but as a new life.
I got up and walked forward with my eyes on the light glimmering in the doors, above which rose the immense shape of the Taj Mahal.
And suddenly, quite independently of me, something began to be formulated in my mind.
The light, I knew, burned above the tomb where the body of the Empress lay. Above it and around it are the marble arches, cupolas and minarets of the Taj Mahal, which carry it upwards, merging it into one whole with the sky and the moonlight.
I felt that precisely here was the beginning of the solution of the riddle.
The light—glimmering above the tomb where lies the dust of her body—this light that is so small and insignificant in comparison with the marble shape of the Taj Mahal, this is life, the life which we know in ourselves and others, in contrast with that other life which we do not know, which is hidden from us by the mystery of death.
The light which can so easily be extinguished, that is the little, transitory, earthly life. The Taj Mahal—that is the future or eternal life.
I began to understand the idea of the artists who had built the mausoleum of the Empress, who had surrounded it with this garden, with these gates, towers, pavilions, fountains, mosques—who had made it so immense, so white, so unbelievably beautiful, merging into the sky with its cupolas and minarets.
Before me and all around me was the soul of the Empress Mumtaz-i-Mahal.
The soul, so infinitely great, radiant and beautiful in comparison with the little body that had lived on earth and was now enclosed in the tomb.
In that moment I understood that the soul is not enclosed in the body, but that the body lives and moves in the soul. And then I remembered and understood a mystical expression which had arrested my attention in old books:
The soul and the future life are one and the same
It even seemed strange to me that I had not been able to understand this before. Of course they were the same. Life, as a process, and that which lives, can be differentiated in our understanding only so long as there is the idea of disappearance, of death. Here, as in eternity, everything was united, dimensions merged, and our little earthly world disappeared in the infinite world.
I cannot reconstruct all the thoughts and feelings of those moments, and I feel that I am expressing a negligible part of them.
I now approached the marble platform on which stands the Taj Mahal with its four minarets at the corners. Broad marble stairs at the sides of the cypress avenue lead up to the platform from the garden.
I went up and came to the doors where the light was burning. I was met by Mahomedan gate-keepers, with slow, quiet movements, dressed in white robes and white turbans.
One of them lit a lantern, and I followed him into the interior of the mausoleum.
In the middle, surrounded by a carved marble trellis, were two white tombs; in the centre the tomb of the Empress, and beside it that of Shah Jehan. The tombs were covered with red flowers, and above them a light burned in a pierced brass lantern.
In the semi-darkness the indistinct outlines of the white walls vanished into the high dome, where the moonlight, penetrating from without, seemed to form a mist of changing colour.
I stood there a long time without moving, and the calm, grave Mahomedans in their white turbans left me undisturbed, and themselves stood in silence near the trellis which surrounded the tombs.
This trellis is itself a miracle of art. The word ” trellis ” conveys nothing, because it is really not a trellis, but a lace of white marble of wonderful workmanship. It is difficult to believe that the flowers and decorative ornamentation of this white filigree lace are neither moulded nor cast, but carved directly in thin marble panels.
Observing that I was examining the trellis, one of the gate-keepers quietly approached me and began to explain the plan of the interior of the Taj Mahal.
The tombstones before me were not real tombs. The real tombs in which the bodies lay were underneath in the crypt.
The middle part of the mausoleum, where we now stood, was under the great central dome; and it was separated from the outer walls by a wide corridor running between the four corner recesses, each beneath one of the four smaller cupolas.
” It is never light here, ” said the man, lifting up his hand. ” Light only comes through the trellises of the side galleries.
He stepped back a few paces and, raising his head, cried slowly in a loud voice:
” Allah! ”
His voice filled the whole of the enormous space of the dome above our heads, and as it began slowly, slowly, to die away, suddenly a clear and powerful echo resounded in the side cupolas from all four sides simultaneously:
” Allah! ”
The arches of the galleries immediately responded, but not all at once; one after another voices rose from every side as though calling to one another.
” Allah! Allah! ”
And then, like the chorus of a thousand voices or like an organ, the great dome itself resounded, drowning everything in its solemn, deep bass:
” Allah! ”
Then again, but more quietly, the side-galleries and cupolas answered, and the great dome, less loudly, resounded once more, and the faint, almost whispering tones of the inner arches re-echoed its voice.
The echo fell into silence. But even in the silence it seemed as if a far, far-away note went on sounding.
I stood and listened to it, and with an intensified sense of joy I felt that this marvellous echo also was a calculated part of the plan of the artists who had given to the Taj Mahal a voice, bidding it repeat for ever the name of God.
Slowly I followed the guide, who, raising his lantern, showed me the ornaments covering the walls: violet, rose, blue, yellow and bright red flowers mingled with the green, some life-size and others larger than life size, stone flowers that looked alive and that were beyond the reach of time; and after that, the whole of the walls covered with white marble flowers, carved doors and carved windows —all of white marble.
The longer I looked and listened, the more clearly, and with a greater and greater sense of gladness, I felt the idea of the artists who had striven to express the infinite richness, variety and beauty of the soul or of eternal life as compared with the small and insignificant earthly life……….”