In 1891, Alexandra David, a 23-year-old Belgian-French scholar, disembarked from a steamship at Madras port in what would be the first of her several journeys to India. The young woman, who claimed to be fascinated by the “unknown” since she was five, had taken a deep interest in Indian philosophies and religions from a very young age.

David ended up spending a year in India, first learning Sanskrit at the Theosophical Society in Adyar, before travelling to Varanasi. In the holy Hindu city by the Ganga, she became a student of Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati, a popular ascetic who gave counsel to several princes. Her initial plan was to become a renunciant (sanyasini), but the urge to travel and explore unchartered territories was too great in her. Besides, she had almost run out of money, making her move back to Brussels inevitable.

It would be another 19 years before David came back to India. In that long and eventful time, she became an accomplished opera singer, and married Philippe Néel, a chief railway engineer in Tunis who was rising quickly up the wealth ladder. This marriage proved an impetus for her adventures as, by some accounts, her husband became her most important benefactor.

“The woman shed her past lives like a serpent sheds its old skin,” Barbara and Michael Foster wrote in their book The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Néel: A Biography of the Explorer of Tibet. “In each life she buried the previous one, concealing its traces.”

Return to India

By 1910, David-Néel was teaching Buddhism in cities like London and Paris, but she felt her knowledge of Indian religions was based more on what she had read. When she shared this thought with her husband in a letter, he responded by offering to pay for her to visit India to perfect her Sanskrit and gain more hands-on experience. The idea was for her to stay in the country, but fate had a different idea. “Alexandra wouldn’t see her ‘dear Mouchy’ for 14 years,” the Fosters wrote. “By then she would have graduated from being a student of the East to a learned lama; from a seeker to a pilgrim to a savant.”

Alexandra David as a teenager, 1886. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Like on her first trip, David-Néel sailed east of the Suez to Ceylon before coming to India. While she studied Pali in the island nation, her presence piqued the interest of both the Ceylonese intellectual elite and the British, who would keep her under surveillance in Ceylon and later in India.

“At Madurai she passed an enchanting evening under the stars, intoxicated by the perfume of India,” the Fosters wrote. “She had arrived in the south, land of the fine-boned, dark-skinned emotive Dravidians.” David-Néel would spend some time in southern India and even met Sri Aurobindo, but her sights were set on the Himalayas and the forbidden land on the other side of the great mountain range. After living in Calcutta for a while, she found her way to the kingdom of Sikkim via Darjeeling.

In a letter dated April 11, 1912, David-Néel wrote in detail about her desire to go beyond the Himalayas:

“Seated on my steed, in the pale rosy dawn, I daydreamed about Don Quixote, in pursuit of adventure. I had no lance in my hand. It was replaced by a simple stick borrowed from a bush. Let us hope the windmills too, will be in modest proportions. Why then, my dear, do you seem to worry about what you call my ‘growing mysticism’? The great joy, the great light that shines around our life, is it not (there) precisely beyond our meagre, narrow identity? I experience hours of lovely peace, full of this transcendence and optimism that flourishes in the Buddhist sutras, and whose flower blossoms gracefully, like an Orchid of the Himalayan valleys.”  

David-Néel was welcomed in Sikkim by the western-educated crown prince Sidkeong Tulku, who introduced her to the people who would help her go to Tibet. “The prince treated her in a manner, almost worshipful,” the Fosters wrote. “He collected her remarks in a scrapbook that he kept by his bedside. At other times, Sidkoeng acted more like a playmate a dozen years his senior.”

It was the Sikkimese crown prince who helped David-Néel get an audience with the 13th Dalai Lama, who was in Kalimpong at that time after escaping from the Chinese.

Visits to Tibet

Without informing the British, who tried to ensure no one entered Tibet, Sidkoeng arranged for David-Néel to cross over into the country in 1912. The mission was successful. Her caravan cut across a pass more than 5,000 metres above sea level to reach Tibet, making her the first European woman to reach the forbidden land.

David-Néel described her elation at the visit to Tibet in a letter dated June 11, 1912:

“For the moment, I am bewitched. I’ve been to the edge of a mystery. I would have stayed there for days to better see what I’ll never see again. Yes, I will dream of it for many years, all my life and a bond will remain between me and this country of clouds and snow.”  

During the trip, she made a brief visit to the outskirts of Shigatse, a major religious centre in Tibet, and stopped at several places, including at the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama – the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.

After returning to Sikkim, David-Néel would meet the Gomchen of Lachen. A famous ascetic and magician, he had such an impact on her that she became his disciple and, for two years, lived isolated from the rest of the world, according to a French documentary titled Alexandra David-Néel: From Sikkim to Forbidden Tibet, directed by Jeanne Mascolo de Filippis and Antoine de Maximy.

The British eventually found out about her visit to Tibet and forced her to leave Sikkim in 1916. “It is very probable that Mrs Néel will create problems,” the superintendent of Sikkim, Charles Bell, wrote in an eviction dossier. “Insofar as she has violated the prohibition of entering Tibet and has thereby achieved her wish of seeing Tibet, there is no further reason for her to stay in Sikkim.” She was given the option of leaving voluntarily or risk being thrown out by the police.

Along with her 14-year-old adopted Sikkimese son, Aphur Yongden, David-Néel travelled to Darjeeling and made plans to leave India, a country where she was made to feel unwelcome by the British colonisers.

Going to Europe was out of the question as World War I had broken out. So, instead, they went to Japan, where they met Ekai Kawaguchi, a Japanese philosopher who had lived in Lhasa for the better part of two decades pretending to be a Chinese monk. David-Néel had met Kawaguchi a few years earlier when she had an audience with the Dalai Lama. The meeting in Japan made her all the more determined to return to Tibet and visit its capital.

David-Néel and Yongden went to China via Korea, then travelled from the eastern part of the country to the western part and onward to Mongolia and Tibet. To avoid attention, one dressed as a beggar and the other as a monk during their travels. After reaching their destination, the two lived in a monastery for three years, before setting out to Lhasa. In 1924, David-Néel had her crowning achievement as an explorer and traveller and became the first European woman to enter the fabled Tibetan capital.

The Tibetan authorities eventually found out about her, but she managed to escape from Lhasa and reached India via Sikkim by the spring of 1924. From Calcutta she left for Europe, where she published the book My Journey to Lhasa in 1927.

Celebrity status

The book brought her immense fame and Asia scholars across Europe sought to meet her and find out more about Tibet.

She managed to get a good deal of press coverage in India as well. The Bombay Chronicle wrote in February 1934 about the “intrepid French woman explorer” who probed the “mysteries of Lamaism”. David-Néel managed to convince the press that she had spent 14 years in Tibet, when it was actually only eight years.

The Bombay Chronicle was generous in its praise for the explorer, who by then had published another book titled With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet. “Not the least merit of this extraordinarily gifted and undaunted traveller is the power she has retained of preserving towards the starting phenomena she has seen, and shared, and evoked the detachment of a scientist,” it wrote. “This critical and yet open-minded attitude makes her record of inestimable value.”

She continued to travel over the next few decades, visiting China via Russia and the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1937. Caught in the middle of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, she ended up back in Tibet a year later and spent five years there.

Over the course of her long life, she explored many religions, from Theravada Buddhism in Ceylon to Hinduism in India, Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet and Taoism in China. Her beliefs were fluid and kept evolving over time. She was back in India in 1946 and witnessed the horrors of the Partition.

A road named David-Néel in Massy, Essonne, a suburb of Paris. Credit: Lionel Allorge/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0].

She wrote and spoke about India and Tibet until she died at the age of 100 in Digne, France, in 1969. Her urge to travel was so strong that David-Néel applied to renew her passport at the age of 100.

Although it wasn’t her time in India that made Alexandra David-Néel famous, there was something about the country that made her want to keep coming back, and she chose it for the final journey of her physical body. In her last will and testimony, the spiritualist, writer and explorer asked that her ashes be mixed with those of her adopted son, Aphur Yongden (who died in 1955), and immersed in the Ganga in Varanasi. This was done by her friend Marie-Madeleine Peyronnet, who took care of David-Néel for the last ten years of her life.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.