One morning in 1873, at the beginning of Paris’s Belle Epoque, a gendarme sauntered through his usual rounds in the Bois de Vincennes, a natural area three times of the size of Central Park.
He spied movement among the towering oaks and to his astonishment, a little girl, around age 5, popped out.
She might have resembled the child in this Renoir painting, except with dark brown hair.
She obviously had wealthy parents, from the look of the lace on her dress. The gendarme started spending the reward for returning her in this head.
“What is your name, petit?”
She stared at him, lost but completely unafraid.
And so began the first adventure of Alexandrine Marie David, later known as Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969), who, at age 56, would rub soot on her skin, don yak hair pigtails, and pass as the servant of her servant through the Himalayas to become the first Western woman into Tibet’s forbidden city, Lhasa.
Even more astonishing—at that point, she was just over halfway through her long and enthralling life.
* * *
Ever since I was five years old, a tiny precocious child of Paris, I wished to move out of the narrow limits in which, like all children of my age, I was then kept.
But Alexandra’s father was a Protestant anarchist and her mother a devout Catholic, which might better explain her urge to escape.
While pregnant, her mother divided her time between reading Last of the Mohicans and praying for a boy-child who would grow up to be bishop. She abandoned her daughter to a series of governesses and returned to her supplications.
Not surprisingly, Alexandra dropped her mother’s name (Alexandrine) in her teens.
Her father Louis, at least, doted on her, so at first she adopted his faith. At age 13, Alexandra enrolled as a Protestant in a Catholic convent school. This choice gave her an excellent education and independence from religion, since she was not required to attend daily mass or learn Protestant doctrine.
Instead, she took field trips to the Guimet, a museum founded to study the art and religion of the Far East.
There, one particular golden Buddha inspired the aha! moment that brought her to Buddhism. She began studying Eastern sacred texts and dabbling in Theosophy.
After graduation, Alexandra audited Sanskrit and Eastern philosophy classes at the Sorbonne.
At age 23, she received a small inheritance from her godmother, which her father begged her to let him invest.
Instead, she sailed to India, roomed at a Theosophy Center near Madras, and continued her Sanskrit studies. She also learned yoga from a famous swami.
Today, if you met a French Buddhist yogini at some function, you’d probably be interested but not amazed. But in the 1890s, Alexandra’s conversion and yoga practice were unprecedented.
Alexandra returned home broke a year later. Her parents couldn’t support her, due to (ironically) her father’s bad investments. Alexandra needed to make a living. She decided on music, one of the few careers open to women.
At 25, she enrolled in Royal Conservatory of Brussels. Three years later she won first prize in soprano and launched an eight-year career as an opera singer.
Upon graduation, Alexandra secured a principal position with the Opera Company of Hanoi and returned to the East she loved. In 1900, she sang in Tunis, where the local casino wanted her to become their musical director. Her voice had already begun to falter. She accepted the offer.
It was a dream job. She hired string quartets and spent evenings at the piano entertaining guests. The clientele was mostly male—and mostly rich.
She caught the attention of Philippe Néel, director of the French railroad in North Africa and a notorious playboy. But he was getting older and he liked a challenge. He wasted no time inviting Alexandra to sail on his yacht.
Before long, old Louis David received a charming letter asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
He replied: “Mister Néel, I am extremely surprised by your letter. Until recently, my daughter has always expressed a firm reluctance to give up her freedom…”
Alexandra, at age 36, knew what she was getting into. Her biographers call it a marriage of convenience, but their decades of correspondence reveal two strong people who loved—but couldn’t live with—each other.
Alexandra and Philippe remained in a tumultuous marriage for seven years. Between her nonstop schedule of entertaining his colleagues, studying, and lecturing, Alexandra became increasingly ill. She’d just finished her first book, Le Bouddhisme du Bouddha, and felt she’d learned all she could on her own.
Philippe offered to send her back to India to recuperate and give them both time to reflect. Alexandra set sail on August 12, 1911.
She wouldn’t return for fourteen years.
Alexandra’s book and her fluency in Sanskrit opened new venues in India. She received invitations from Theosophists, local dignitaries, and holy men. They believed she had reincarnated to finish the work of a previous lifetime. Alexandra soon headed north, hoping to enter Tibet.
At age 43, she became disciple of a Buddhist monk in Sikkim, a Tibetan border state. For two years, Alexandra lived in a cave at 12,000 feet until the Maharajah of Nepal gave her a bequest to build a small hut.
She studied the Tibetan language and learned esoteric practices, such as tumo, a meditation technique to generate body temperature at those frigid elevations.
One of her servants, a 14-year-old monk named Aphur Yongden, managed her household. He was intelligent and keen to learn more about the world outside Sikkim. Alexandra would eventually adopt him.
And what of Philippe? She wrote to him almost every day:
You see how much pleasure it gives me to write to you and recount the incidents of my voyage. That should prove to you, dearest, that although I find great pleasure in my travels, I do not forget you…
Philippe, of course, had taken a mistress, but he continued to support Alexandra. They remained friends until his death in 1941.
Alexandra and Aphur made at least two crossings into Tibet, a British protectorate at the time. In September 1916, the British ambassador expelled her from Sikkim, concerned she might be a spy.
Thwarted but not defeated, Alexandra and Aphur traveled across Asia. In Japan, they met a monk who slipped into Lhasa disguised as a Chinese doctor. She concocted her plan to enter Tibet through China.
In 1924, at age 56, Alexandra rubbed soot on her skin and donned yak hair pigtails to pass as Aphur’s servant.
They traversed a 19,000-foot mountain pass and hiked for nineteen hours until they descended into the valley that brought them to Lhasa and the golden-roofed palace of the Dalai Lamas.
“Lha gyalo! Di tamtchen pam!” they cried. (“The gods have triumphed! The demons have been vanquished!”)
In her book, Magic and Mystery in Tibet, Alexandra describes the wondrous, improbable world she encountered—telepathic messages between masters and disciples, meditation runners who flew for days across the savannahs, pre-Buddhist shamanistic rites that included raising the dead.
Alexandra and Aphur stayed two months in Lhasa. The British finally discovered them and sent them packing. They returned to France as celebrities and Alexandra bought a home in Provence.
She began the decades-long task of chronicling their adventures. She would write thirty books in the next forty years.
One October night in 1955, Alexandra was jolted awake by heavy pounding on her door. She refused to answer, remembering the Tibetan superstition that death knocks before collecting. A servant yelled, “Monsieur is very ill!”
Within a few hours, Aphur, her son and traveling companion of forty years, was dead from kidney failure. The doctor Alexandra had summoned could do nothing. At age 87, frail and devastated, she wanted only to join him.
But eventually her work drew her back. She wrote seven more books. At age 100, she visited the local ministry to renew her passport, determined to return to Tibet.
They granted her request. Shortly thereafter, she made her last and greatest journey, into the unknown. Her ashes, and those of Aphur, were scattered upon the Ganges River according to her wishes.
It’s impossible, in this short piece, to give meaning to Alexandra’s life. I stress her husband’s support and gloss over hardships and yak dung fires. I give no inkling of the intellect behind all those books.
I never mention how Aphur (at right) adapted to Europe or that the Dalai Lama made a pilgrimage to her house in Provence.
But I hope I’ve given you a tantalizing glimpse—and a longing to embrace your own Tibet.
I am ‘homesick’ for a land that is not mine. I am haunted by the steppes, the solitude, the everlasting snow and the great blue sky ‘up there’!
Where is your Tibet?
Artwork: Yard in Front of the Castle by Nicholas Roerich.