SOAS University of London

Yoga expert James Mallinson to travel to world’s largest religious festival with actor and friend Dominic West for BBC Four documentary

7 September 2015

Dr James Mallinson, SOAS’ resident Yoga expert and lecturer in Sanskrit and Classical Indian Studies, is appearing in a BBC Four documentary (Tuesday 8 September, 10pm) alongside his lifelong friend, acclaimed actor Dominic West (The Wire; BBC’s The Hour), as the two undertake a pilgrimage to the world’s largest religious and human festival, Kumbh Mela.

Mallinson documentary
Dr James Mallinson being made a Mahant of the Sadhus - the first westerner to receive the honour. Having his lifelong friend actor Dominic West present made it even more special

Mallinson and West met as 13 year olds at school and despite the different directions their lives have taken them, the two have remained close ever since. ‘West Meets East’, which airs tomorrow night, will track the journey of Mallinson and West as they travel to northern India where the festival takes place. Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which millions of Hindus from across the world gather to bathe in the river Ganges, an epic waterway that holds holy properties to the followers of the religion.

The documentary affords some special access and insight into what has grown to become the largest gathering of humans worldwide. Dr Mallinson takes his old friend to live with his own sect of holy men (Sadhus); and Dominic is granted permission to take part in a unique event, James’ ordination as a Mahant, a cross between an abbot and a brigadier - the first time a westerner has received this honour in this ancient order of master yogis. The position is permanent and requires James to attend every Mela to give a feast.

Dr Mallinson said: “I’m delighted that this unique film on the Kumbh Mela festival is getting an airing on British TV. Perfect timing too: I leave the next day for the latest in the cycle of triennial Kumbh Melas, which is in full swing now at Nasik in central India. As a Mahant, I shall be feasting my peers once again. I’ll also be searching out traditional yoga practitioners to help with my on-going work researching the history of yoga.”

James Mallinson is a world authority on yoga and Sanskrit, having spent much of the last 27 years in India, several of which he resided with Indian ascetics and yogis. He received his BA in Sanskrit and Old Iranian from the University of Oxford, followed by an MA in Area Studies (South Asia) with Ethnography at SOAS University of London where he now teaches. His experience-led approach to scholarly endeavour has resulted in unprecedented access for a westerner, a fact evident in his many acclaimed publications on Sanskrit texts and poetry.

‘West Meets East’ will air on BBC Four on Tuesday 8 September at 10pm. It can also be watched on iPlayer after it has been aired for a limited time only.

Visit Dr Mallinson’s website.