Alexandra David-Néel is one of the most extraordinary women I have ever read about. She was a Buddhist scholar and teacher, a prolific writer, and from an early age an inveterate, often solitary, traveler. She became an opera singer to support herself and traveled over much of China and Tibet disguised as a beggar. However, she is probably most well-known as the first western woman to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa.
Alexandra David-Néel was born on October 24, 1868, to a French father, Louis Pierre David, and a Belgian mother, Alexandrine Borghmans David. Louis David was a school teacher turned revolutionary journalist who fled France after Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat in 1851. He settled in Louvain, Belgium where he met Alexandrine. She was 20 years his junior and they were not well-matched in intellect or interests.
Although, Alexandra grew up in Belgium, her father received permission to travel to Paris shortly before her birth so that she could be born a French citizen. Alexandra’s memories of her childhood sound bleak. She remembered her father as aloof and her mother as being primarily interested in social concerns. She felt neglected and unloved.
As a child, Alexandra had a longing to travel, but not to see sites and people; she was looking for solitude. She found this to an extent in reading, but also ran away on several occasions. The first was when she was five years old and was found in a nearby forest. At fifteen, she ventured farther afield, walking from Ostend where the family was vacationing, into the Netherlands and crossing over to England. Another time, Alexandra traveled by train to Switzerland and hiked over the Saint-Gotthard Pass through the Alps. Both trips were without her parents knowledge and ended when she ran out of money.
As a young woman, she rejected Catholicism and began to study comparative religions. She attended lectures and discussions at the Theosophical Society in Paris, which is where she probably first encountered Buddhism and became fascinated by Far Eastern cultures. But the place in Paris which made the most dramatic impression on Alexandra was the Musée Guimet, a museum devoted to Asian art. The museum was founded by Émile Étienne Guimet, who was commissioned to study religions of the Far East by the minister of public instruction in France. There in a small reading room, Alexandra found her longed for solitude and as she would say later, her vocation.
In 1890, Alexandra decided to use the money from a small inheritance to travel to India. She traveled by ship to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then by train all over the Indian sub-continent. On her journey she studied the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, Sanskrit under Annie Besant, and yoga with Swami Bhaskarananda of Varanasi. She was gone for almost a year and as before, returned home when she was almost out of money.
Louis David had had a reversal of fortune, and Alexandra needed to find a way to support herself. She had always been talented musically and decided to become an opera singer. Beginning in 1896, she toured with several opera companies, including Opéra Comique and L’Opéra d’Athènes, until she took a position as director with Casino de Tunis in 1902. The next year, she changed directions and became a journalist, writing for both English and French magazines.
It was in Tunis where Alexandra met and lived with Philippe-François Néel, a Frenchman who was working in Tunis as a railroad engineer. A friend remembered their relationship as one of affection and mutual respect, but it was definitely out of the ordinary. On August 3, 1904, Alexandra and Philippe were married at the French consulate in Tunis. Five days later, they returned to France and went in different directions.
Later that year in December, Alexandra’s father died. Her trip home and the cold reception from her mother launched her into a period of deep self-analysis and a realization of what her life would be like if she pursued marriage and motherhood. She came to the conclusion that “freedom for her was the most important thing in life,” and she had to create her own life on her own terms.
Alexandra wrote of her struggles to Philippe. “You are the best husband one could dream of, I acknowledge it without hesitation and it is for that reason I am tormented by a situation that is extremely painful for you.” He accepted her position, at least in time, with good grace, and although they never had a conventional marriage, Philippe never asked for a divorce and continued to support her in many ways until his death 40 years later.
Between her father’s death and 1911, Alexandra began building her life on her terms. She studied, attended lectures, wrote articles, and took short trips, including the occasional visit to see Philippe. She knew she wanted to go back to India and finally felt ready in August of 1911. In her previous travels, especially to Indochina with the opera company, she felt that she belonged in the east.
Once in India, she had a wide range of experiences, from garden parties and lunch with the wives of the Governor of Madras and the British Viceroy, to visiting ashrams and staying with friends in the “native quarter.” She collected information from every source for future articles. In 1912, she decided that she wanted to interview the 13th Dalai Lama. She was the first western woman granted an audience with him and he was so impressed with her knowledge of Buddhist doctrine that he encouraged her to learn the Tibetan language.
In 1910, the Dalai Lama had been granted refuge in Darjeeling in the province of Sikkim, in the Himalayan foothills. While there Alexandra also met Sidkeong Tulka, the Crown Prince of Sikkim and at his invitation traveled to Gangtok, the capital, to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism. She eventually took a small apartment in the monastery of Podang outside Gangtok, where she hired a tutor to help her with the language. She took frequent trips on foot and horseback to remote monasteries, traveling with porters for her camping gear and at first Darwasandup, her interpreter, and later Yongden, a boy who would be her traveling companion for the rest of his life.
From 1914 to 1916, Alexandra spent a winter secluded in a cave in the Himalayas and twice crossed the border illegally into Tibet. The first time to visit the Chorten Nyima monastery and the second to visit Tashilhunpo. On her return from the second visit, she was deported from India because of these crossings. By this time, she was determined to visit Lhasa, and now she knew she would have to enter through China.
Alexandra and Yongden left India and traveled through Burma, Japan, and Korea, usually staying at Buddhist monasteries, and arrived in Peking on October 31, 1917. They began their time in China by staying roughly three years at the Kumbum monastery near Lake Koko Nor. It was an unusual privilege for a woman, extended to her because of her age and her association with the Dalai Lama, but it couldn’t last indefinitely. (Yongden was a lama and could have stayed if he chose.)
When they left the monastery, they traveled to various places, even up to the Gobi desert on two occasions. Much of the area, at the time, had not been accurately mapped and knowing their ultimate destination was Lhasa, they took circuitous routes to avoid suspicion. It was dangerous. There were bandits in addition to the usual dangers women face. Alexandra carried a pistol, which she never had to use, although she did fend off an attacker with a small whip on one occasion.
Finally, they reached a small mission, north of Lichiang along the Mekong River from which they intended to approach Tibet. Saying that she was going on a short trip to collect botanicals, she dismissed her porters and took off alone with Yongden. Once away from the others, Alexandra assumed her disguise as a peasant woman. She darkened her hair and extended it with braids of yak hair, darkened her face, and put on a rough robe made of wool. They looked like a peasant woman traveling with her son, a lama journeying to Lhasa.
In the Kha Karpo mountains at Dokar Pass, Alexandra and Yongden crossed the border into Tibet. They still had hundreds of miles to go over uncharted territory. Most of the rivers and mountains they crossed didn’t appear on any map that they knew of, and in many cases had probably never been seen by westerners. The terrain was rough; the Dokar Pass itself is at an elevation over 14,000 feet and the weather at times was brutal. In order to avoid attracting attention, Alexandra only used the white tent she carried in her pack when it could blend in with the snow and help provide camouflage.
The most anticipated and tense moment came at the toll bridge at Giamdo Dzong. From here they would take the China Road to Lhasa, but first they would need a pass. Alexandra believed that the best way to learn about a people and their culture was to live among them. This trip had proven that idea true. Because Yongden was a lama, they were welcomed into the homes of many peasants and she was accepted as his mother. At the toll bridge, the same was true. Yongden went into the checkpoint to request passes, she sat on the doorstep and chanted. No one appeared to give her a second thought.
The same held true when they finally arrived at Lhasa. They arrived in February just in time for the month long celebration of the New Year. Instead of having the way cleared for her by servants as in the past, this time Alexandra was simply one of the thousands of celebrating pilgrims, and she loved it. She watched processions and tested her disguise by going to tea shops, bazaars, and having conversations with people at the inn where she stayed. Finally it was time to try for her ultimate goal, visiting the Potala Palace, the home of the Dalai Lama.
Yongden approached two Tibetan villagers and offered to show them the Potala. They gladly accepted the opportunity to have a lama accompany them, and Alexandra humbly walked behind the three men. As at the checkpoint, no one paid her any attention and she was able to feast her eyes on the Palace and the view of Lhasa from the roof. She was satisfied.
They had been in Lhasa for two months and Alexandra chose to return home via India. She wanted to make the point that the British government couldn’t prevent her from going to Lhasa. She took the precaution of stopping at Gyantze and having David Macdonald, the British Trade Agent, verify her journey. She had been gone for almost fourteen years.
Alexandra and Yongden returned to Tibet via the Soviet Union in 1937, where they circumambulated the holy mountain Amnye Machen and stayed at Tachienlu (now Kangding), so that Alexandra could read and translate more sacred literature. They returned from their final journey in 1946 and settled in Digne-les-Bains, in southeastern France. There, Yongden died in 1955 at the age of 56. Alexandra continued to study and write until close to her death on September 8, 1969, just one month before her 101st birthday. At her request, Yongden’s ashes were mixed with hers and they were scattered in the Ganges River at Varanasi.
Alexandra wrote over 30 books and numerous articles, including My Journey to Lhasa: The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City (1927) and Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), her most famous work.
“A Mystic in Tibet – Alexandra David-Néel”
On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet by Luree Miller