IN 2013 actor Dominic West and academic Jim Mallinson went on an amazing journey. They travelled to the very heart of the largest gathering of human beings the world has ever seen: India’s celebrated Hindu festival, the Maha Kumbh Mela. One hundred million pilgrims gather during its three-month duration – a vast event of spirituality, cleansing of sins and extraordinary goings on. In the film we see West and Mallinson bathe with millions in the holy river Ganges, witness ordeals by fire, and avoid sword-wielding warrior holy men. The two are coming to the Idler Academy to screen the film.
We asked Jim Mallinson a bit more about the festival.
What is Kumbha Mela?
A bathing festival held every three years alternating between four different sacred sites in India. Every twelve years it’s at Allahabad, where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet, and the festival there is the biggest gathering of people on the planet. Accurate figures are impossible, but estimates for the 2013 Mela varied from 50 to 100 million people showing up over the two-month duration, with perhaps 30 million bathing on the main day. The pilgrims go to bathe at the confluence on the auspicious days and to have audiences with the assembled yogis and saints, for whom it is the one obligatory meeting in their otherwise free and peripatetic life. We spent two weeks staying in my guru’s tent in the camp of one of the oldest orders of yogis.
You are both old Etonians. There is a long and noble tradition of English gents taking an interest in the ways of the East and even “going native”. Do you feel a part of that tradition?
When I first started going native 25 years ago I was doing my best to escape my English upbringing. With hindsight, ten years at all-male boarding schools was perfect training for fitting into the world of India’s holy men, which is similarly all-male and full of arcane rituals. But I don’t feel much connection with previous English gents who went native in India — the ones we know about were usually living in some style, while the world of the yogis is the opposite (there are exceptions). There were one or two English gents of old who got into the yogi world, but they seem to have got too far into it for any more information about them to be available.
Can Kumbha Mela and the crazy yogis teach us something about everyday life in the West?
As the film shows, the way that such a huge festival can run supported only by the devotion and service of the pilgrims (OK, and a little bit of help on the infrastructure side from the government) is a welcome contrast to the mainstreaming and commercialisation of festivals in the west. The Kumbh Melas are free festivals — anyone can turn up and stay somewhere and be fed. The yogis we lived with at the festival do little in the way of direct teaching: they are living embodiments of the fact that there is more to life than the mundane, which they ostentatiously renounce. They are also, as Dom and I discussed at our last talk at the Idler, world champion idlers, and are revered by their devotees for their idling.
Why did you decide to make the film?
Dom came on a trip with me to the Himalayas. We spent a wild night with some yogi friends of mine at a secret tantric monastery. Dom wanted to know more so I said that the best place to do that is the Kumbh Mela, where all the yogis gather, and then we thought why don’t we get our old mate Rupert to make a film about it.
Were there any hairy moments?
Flailing swords, burning chillums, toxic rivers, stampeding crowds, torrential downpours, exploding gas cylinders, warrior yogis, but nothing out of the ordinary. I’m a Kumbh Mela veteran — I’ve been to every one since 1992 — but Dom and the crew were new to it and slotted in with amazing aplomb, taking all the madness in their stride.
Who took the better path through life – Dom or Jim?
Since we both bathed at the confluence of the world’s holiest rivers on the most auspicious day possible, I’d say it was first equal.
THIS FILM is the first ever to document an intimate behind-the-scenes journey into the very depths of the festival as Jim takes Dom to live with his own sect of holy men, or Sadhus. It is also Dominic’s first ever factual film role and offers extraordinary insight into the actor’s life. They go to the very heart of the festival and Dom takes part in a unique event: his old friend Jim’s ordination as a Mahant, a commander of his sect – the first time a westerner has received this honour in this ancient order of master yogis.
Dom and Jim met as 13 year olds at school. They’ve been great friends ever since but their lives have taken very different directions. Dom went to drama school and today is BAFTA award winning Dominic West, acclaimed star of the ‘The Wire’. After school, Jim set off to India where he has spent much of the last 25 years. Today he is Sir James Mallinson with a Phd from Oxford and a world authority on yoga and Sanskrit.
Event: Screening of Dominic West and Jim Mallinson’s documentary about the Maha Kumbh Mela Festival in India. Dominic and Jim will introduce the film. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session. Cocktails will be served.
Date: Tuesday 25th November
Time: 6:30 – 8:30pm
To book: follow this link or telephone 0207 221 5908