Movie Review: Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela

By Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D
Movie Magazine International
"Short cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela" chronicles the 2001 Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India. Kumbh Mela is the mother of all religious festivals. It started as a Hindu gathering but has evolved over the centuries to incorporate other Eastern religions. Called "the greatest gathering of people in the history of humanity," devotees believe it has existed since the beginning of time. Historians have evidence that the festival may have taken place as early as 10,000 B.C. This particular Mela, or festival takes place every 144 years corresponding with an aligning of the planets. But there are other related Melas in the same towns that take place every 12, 6, 3, and one year.

Picture seventy million pilgrims, gurus, fakirs, swamis, and yogis converging in one place over a twelve-day period. The traditional purpose of the festival is spiritual cleansing through ritual bathing in sacred rivers. It is said that this one pilgrimage is equal to one thousand regular pilgrimages. In the film we follow a small group of Westerners and their new friend, a young and charming Swami Krishannand who acts as their interpreter. The Swami interviews religious leaders and provides insightful commentary. He also explores the ascetics who perform feat, like a fakir who has been holding his arm up for twenty years in his quest to reach enlightenment. And Avadhoot Baba who walks on sandals made with nails.

The bright and colorful scenes along with the pulsating tabla drums and traditional Indian instruments on the soundtrack -- take you to the festival. You can almost smell the dhal and chapattis cooking over the fire. A young Western nurse offers interesting insights about her experiences. But the heart of this film and what creates clarity out of all the chaos -- is the philosophical pearls from spiritual leaders. A retired pilot, Baaba, who saw combat during his time in the military stressed the need for peace and said that the West is missing the inner journey. "They know so much about science and inventions, but they are missing discovery self." Others talk about the benefits of meditation. Kali Ramanand Puri says, "In America nobody has the time to sit in one posture for three hours. Everything will be missed!" Even the Dalai Lama shows up to offer support for the tradition and to teach religious harmony.

The culmination of the festival is the main bathing day when thousands of naked ash-smeared naga babas lead the way into the Ganges to "purify the water" for the millions who will join them. "Short Cut to Nirvana" is the path to take for a dip into a cross-cultural experience with a good dose of Eastern philosophy.

In San Francisco, this is Joan Widdifield for Movie Magazine.
More Information:
Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela
2004/Running time: 85 minutes