Mystical Journey to Kumbh Mela

Jim and Dom.jpg

His in-depth study has led him to some surprising discoveries about the history and practice of yoga which he will share with New Yorkers on August 27 at Yoga Shanti in a lecture followed by Q&A.

Jim grew up with actor Dominic West, well known for his role as Jimmy McNulty on HBO’s The Wire. Last year Smithsonian TV Channel followed these two friends to the Kumbh Mela bathing festival on the banks of the Ganges and created a 46-minute documentary Mystical Journey: Kumbh Mela depicting their journey. The evening’s lecture will be followed by a screening of the film.

Lauren Tepper: What first drew you to the Kumbh Mela?

Jim Mallinson: I met an English traveller on Kovalam beach in south India when I was 17. He was doing headstands every day and urged me to do the same. On the same trip my fascination with India’s yogis also first took hold. Each summer for the next three years I went to India. I realised that in order to get deeper I would have to get initiated into one of their sects. In 1992 at the three-yearly Kumbh Mela at Ujjain I met my guru, Yogiraj Ram Balak Das (whom I call by the generic term Babaji). After two more years in India I decided to do a PhD at Oxford, and to use my Sanskrit training. I chose to edit and translate a text called the Khecarīvidyā, which is about the khecarī mudrā technique, in which the tongue is lengthened and turned back and up into the skull in order to taste the nectar of immortality. I made regular visits to India to track down yogis who still use the technique.

Lauren Tepper: What first drew you to the Kumbh Mela?

Jim friend Dom at KM.jpg

Jim Mallinson: I met an English traveller on Kovalam beach in south India when I was 17. He was doing headstands every day and urged me to do the same. On the same trip my fascination with India’s yogis also first took hold. Each summer for the next three years I went to India. I realised that in order to get deeper I would have to get initiated into one of their sects. In 1992 at the three-yearly Kumbh Mela at Ujjain I met my guru, Yogiraj Ram Balak Das (whom I call by the generic term Babaji). After two more years in India I decided to do a PhD at Oxford, and to use my Sanskrit training. I chose to edit and translate a text called the Khecarīvidyā, which is about the khecarī mudrā technique, in which the tongue is lengthened and turned back and up into the skull in order to taste the nectar of immortality. I made regular visits to India to track down yogis who still use the technique.

LT: What made Dominic West come along with you ?

JM: Dominic and I were in the same year at school for most of our teenage years. In 2007 I made a film about a paraglider’s pilgrimage across the Himalayas (called Temples in the Clouds ) and hooked Dom up with a school, thinking that like the other friends of mine who’d expressed interest he would never get around to it. Ten days later I got an email: “I’ve got my license, what do I do now?” I was guiding paragliding trips in the Himalayas and I told Dom to come with us. He was incredibly good (and brave) considering how inexperienced he was. Afterwards we spent a crazy night at the ancient mountain temple of Jwalamukhi, where we met accomplished yogis, hard-core ascetics, and a rather creepy tantric priest. Dom was fascinated and I said that if he wanted to find out more he should come to the next Kumbh Mela at Allahabad. A plan was hatched...

LT: Tell me about the making of the documentary.

Jim and friends at KM.jpg

JM: Most surprising was how accommodating all the other sadhus in Babaji’s camp were. They soon became used to us, which allowed us to get some amazing footage. Our crew was incredible. The conditions were tough: damp and cold at night, and all seven of us were crammed into Babaji’s tiny tent (he had moved out when we arrived and spent the rest of the festival by his fire). There were some nasty chest infections going around the camps and all of us (except Dominic) went down at some point, but the guys soldiered on.

LT: After all the buildup of many days and waiting for hours in crowds of people, how did it feel when you finally took the plunge into the sacred river at Kumbh Mela?

JM: I’ve done it many times; it is always a great climax to the festival and in some ways a relief that one has made it to the end in one piece! Dom also mentioned how amazing it was to be carried along in that sea of people — any thought of individuality soon disappears when you join a crowd of such size and single-mindedness. It is truly euphoric.

LT: The documentary shows many of the Hindu gurus smoking ‘chillums,’ a combination of tobacco and marijuana. Can you explain the significance of this as part of the spiritual path of a sadhu? Did you two try it?

JM: In the film Babaji says that you might as well ask why he is a sadhu: smoking chillums helps him to renounce worldly existence, to forget about the mundane aspects of reality. Though not all sadhus smoke cannabis, its use is relatively common. It is acknowledged as bad for health — but good for cultivating the detachment essential for the yogic life. It also helps with the hard life on the road — it helps one overcome the cold and discomfort experienced on long treks to remote Himalayan pilgrimage sites, for example.

I have joined the chillum circle many times. Like me, Dominic would share the chillum to show respect and earn trust: that’s part of what enabled us to put otherwise gruff and unforgiving sadhus at ease and film them in situ. At the monastery in the mountains I smoked a chillum with one of the young sadhus who was an expert in yogic āsanas in order to win his confidence so that he would give us a display. First I had to show him my best postures: I was pretty light-headed after the scorpion!

I have joined the chillum circle many times. Like me, Dominic would share the chillum to show respect and earn trust: that’s part of what enabled us to put otherwise gruff and unforgiving sadhus at ease and film them in situ. At the monastery in the mountains I smoked a chillum with one of the young sadhus who was an expert in yogic āsanas in order to win his confidence so that he would give us a display. First I had to show him my best postures: I was pretty light-headed after the scorpion!

Jim Millison.jpg

LT: The documentary shows your induction to the status of ‘mahant’ by your sect in India. Can you explain what that means?

JM: A mahant is a cross between an abbot and a military commander. At Melas it is a mahant’s duty to look after his men by feeding them and/or giving them money. I throw a bhandara or feast for my immediate group and I could, if I wanted, set up my own camp of yogis but I prefer to stay with my guru. When I am in England it makes little difference: I go about my yoga practice as before - but in India, it makes me feel even more part of the tradition.

I was honoured, yet ambivalent and nervous about being made a mahant. But the ceremony was wonderful and the way that the other yogis of my order welcomed me afterwards was truly heartwarming.

LT: Anything else you’d like to share about your work or your upcoming lecture in NYC?

JM: From my years of living as a yogi in India and painstaking study of rare Sanskrit texts I have effectively rewritten the history of yoga. My lecture will help people understand the roots of their practice; not only will it be illustrated with photographs from my journey and colorful anecdotes, it will uncover a few surprises as well…

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