Alexandra David Néel was a writer, opera singer, pianist, lecturer, journalist, polyglot, exceptional explorer, and expert on the culture of Tibet.
A tireless traveler, she was the first foreigner to enter Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, after traveling 2,000 kilometers on foot through the Himalayas.
Throughout her long life (she lived 101 years) she wrote more than 30 books with the stories of her travels and dissemination of eastern religions.
Childhood and youth of Alexandra David-Néel
Alexandra David was born on October 24, 1868, in Paris, in the Saint-Mandé district. She was baptized with the name of Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David.
Her parents belonged to a wealthy family. Alexandra was an only child.
Alexandra’s mother saw to it that she received a good education, that she was imbued with Christian ideas, and that she led a calm and comfortable life, in keeping with what was expected of a young woman in the late 19th century.
Alexandra’s father was a teacher and had a great friendship with the geographer Élisée Reclus. Furthermore, her father was a Freemason and ran a republican-oriented publication. In 1871, he took his 3-year-old daughter to see the execution of the last prisoners of the Paris Commune, so that she would never forget this shameful event for the French.
From her earliest childhood, the girl showed that she had a good ear and a beautiful voice, for which her parents provided her with a complete training in lyrical singing and piano.
Alexandra David frequented Mr. Reclus, a friend of her father, throughout her childhood and adolescence. He fostered in her the desire to know worlds and transmitted to her the feminist and anarchist ideas of the time.
From a young age Alexandra David showed a great personality. At the age of 15 she tried to embark alone, bound for Great Britain. Her family, horrified, managed to stop her.
Alexandra David in her youth
Alexandra David joined the “Theosophical Society“, which was dedicated to spiritualism, eastern occultism and the study of comparative religions.
In 1898, Alexandra dedicated an essay to her mentor Élisée Reclus entitled “Pour la vie” (In Praise of Life). In this writing she said: “Let each one follow entirely, always and anywhere, the impulse of her nature, be it limited or brilliant. Only then will man know what it is to live, instead of despising life without ever having lived it ”.
The following year, she wrote a treatise on anarchism. Élisée Reclus was the author of the prologue. Faced with rejection by the publishers, the book had to be published by a friend. Later, the work was translated into five languages.
Alexandra David was also a free contributor to “La fronde,” a feminist newspaper created by actress Marguerite Durand, and run cooperatively by women.
She also participated in the “National Council of French Women“, and defended the fight for emancipation on an economic level, according to her an essential cause of the misfortune of women who cannot enjoy financial independence.
Alexandra David moved away from feminists from high society, who only asked for the right to vote and forgot about the economic struggle that most women had to face.
As soon as she could go out alone, Alexandra David went on her own to travel countries. Thanks to music, she made her first trips: her musical skills took her on a tour of Greece, Tunisia and some other countries. She toured Spain, mostly riding a bicycle
In Indochina, she performed as the first soprano at the Hanoi Opera.
Before turning 30, she had already traveled knowing people, languages and customs of different countries.
Alexandra David married Philippe Néel
During a stay in Tunisia in September 1900, Alexandra David met Philippe Néel, an engineer working for the French government on a railway construction project.
The exceptional Alexandra gave up bel canto, despite its exceptional qualities, and decided on the chief engineer of the Tunisian railways. Both fell in love and maintained relationships for four years.
Living with her friend in North Africa, in a place that fascinated her, allowed her to make continuous trips by boat and rail.
Alexandra David was already 36 years old and she knew that if she remained single, she would never be respected as a writer or as a speaker or as a singer. Consequently, she decided to marry.
On August 4, 1904, she married Philipe Néel.
Since then she adopted a pseudonym and decided to be known as Alexandra David-Néel, instead of Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David.
Given Alexandra’s dynamic activities, their life together was sometimes stormy despite the fact that they both respected and loved each other.
Alexandra David’s first trip to India, in 1910
In 1910, the Ministry of Public Instruction entrusted Alexandra David with a mission in India, lasting 18 months.
She embarked in Marseille, bound for Ceylon, and Philipe Néel went to see her off. Neither of them knew that this trip would last well over 18 months.
During the years 1910 and 1911, Alexandra David made an effort to understand the religion, customs and language of the region.
From the beginning, Alejandra expressed great interest in sharing experiences, ideas and knowledge with wise Brahmins and rich Maharajas. Soon she was able to speak Pali, Hindi, and Sanskrit.
Shortly after her arrival in India, she participated in ceremonies to which few foreigners were invited. Her interest in everything she was learning did not prevent her from resolutely denying the caste system.
Alexandra David’s second trip to India, in 1911
A few weeks after returning to Tunisia, Alexandra David decided to undertake a second trip to India on her own.
Her husband could not assimilate this new separation, coupled with the fact that she did not want to have children
The marriage ended definitively on August 9, 1911, when Alexandra David undertook her second trip to India.
This rupture of her with Philippe Néel, did not prevent them from continuing their great friendship and from always maintaining an abundant correspondence.
When she was previously in Madras, Alexandra David had learned that the Dalai Lama had had to flee her country, then in revolt against China, and that he resided in a place in the Himalayas.
The already experienced writer Alexandra David first came to Madras, a city in southern India. From there, she wanted to go to Nepal, with the ultimate goal of reaching Tibet.
On this occasion, Alexandra David did not have the financial backing of the French government. But, the experience of the previous 18 months and the command of the country’s languages gave her enough confidence to undertake a trip north as soon as possible, bound for Nepal.
Alexandra David traveled to Sikkim
Alexandra David had some financial resources, although scarce, but her main asset was her adventurous spirit and the ability to adapt to any difficult circumstance.
Alexandra David was not a traveling tourist, but an explorer in search of cultures and knowledge. She didn’t mind walking around and staying in any interesting place.
With the final idea of reaching the city of Lhasa in Tibet, she made her way first to Sikkim. This northern state of India borders Tibet and Nepal. It is a small kingdom in the Himalayas. Its most populous city is Gangtok.
In addition to glaciers and thousands of species of wildflowers, Alexandra David was drawn to the many steep trails that lead to Buddhist monasteries.
Alexandra David spent a very short time in Sikkim, as she undertook a trip to Nepal, which would bring her to Tibet and Lhasa, her final destination.
Arrival of Alexandra David in Nepal
She arrived in Nepal in 1912. The Maharaja gave her some elephants so that she could travel more comfortably in this country that is between India and Tibet.
In Nepal she was received in monasteries and palaces. She was also associated with beggars, shepherds, monks, anchorites, and sages.
While in Nepal, Alexandra David met a 14-year-old Tibetan named Aphur Yongden. She hired him as a servant, and they both began the journey to the heights of Tibet, in order to reach Lhasa, the city of her dreams.
At that time, Tibet was under the command of British officials and the country was closed and inaccessible to foreigners.
Every time she directed her gaze to the distant snowy peaks, Alexandra sensed that there was a country different from all of them. A burning desire to reach Tibet seized her.
She tried to arrive again and again with her servant Aphur Yongden, but they were always arrested and sent back to India, to Nepal.
For Alexandra David, adventure was her only reason for being. She set out to spend two long years in a cave at an altitude of 4,000 meters meditating and searching for the true nature of the elements. She had nothing and lived on the charity of the monks.
Accompanied only by her master, she was about to freeze to death as she only wore a fine cotton tunic.
During that time, Alexandra learned Tibetan and Buddhist Tantrism; she earned the respect and admiration of the monks, who allowed her access to documents banned from Westerners.
Alexandra kept traveling and preparing
While waiting for better circumstances to go to Tibet, Alexandra made trips to Japan, Korea and Beijing.
When she returned to India again, she entered the Kumbum Monastery which is located in the Tibetan region of Amdo.
There, Alexandra David spent two and a half years sharing her life with the lamas of the temple. In one of her books, she says: “the configuration of the surrounding mountain ranges stopped the passage of the clouds and forced them to turn around the rocky summit that supported the gompa forming a sea of white mist, with its waves beating silently against the monks’ cells, crowning the wooded slopes and creating a thousand fantasy landscapes as they passed. Terrible hailstorms used to erupt over the monastery, due, the peasants said, to the malignancy of the demons who sought to disturb the peace of the holy monks.
We were first taken to the great kitchen where the priests prepared Tibetan tea in large copper pots ten feet in diameter, beautifully decorated with Buddhist symbols. The stoves were the usual clay products and the fuel was nothing more than straw, which the younger lamas continually fed the fire ”.
Alexandra David had widely earned the respect of the temple priests, who named her “lama.” With this appointment they recognized that she was an authority in doctrine and a spiritual teacher, capable of showing others the way to liberation and enlightenment.
Alexandra David managed to enter Lhasa
The intrepid explorer was determined to reach Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and meet the Dalai Lama personally.
In 1924, Alexandra hatched a plan to enter Lhasa: she and Yongden disguised themselves as beggars and said that they went to the mountains in search of medicinal herbs.
Alexandra dyed her skin with cocoa ash, wore yak hair dyed with black Chinese ink, as if she were the widow of a witch lama.
They traveled at night like ghosts and rested during the day. Once, to feed themselves, they had to boil water and add a piece of leather from their boots.
When they finally reached the city, a sandstorm helped them slip past them. Skeletal, emaciated and dressed as beggars, a woman offered them accommodation.
In this way, Alexandra David managed to reach Lhasa, spending four months traveling 2,000 kilometers on foot through the Himalayas, eating nettles and sleeping in the frozen mud.
She was the first Western woman to enter the capital of Tibet.
As soon as possible, Alexandra David-Néel wrote to her husband Philipe: “Dear friend, I have successfully completed the walk that I started when I sent you my last letter”.
She arrived in Lhasa, turned into a “walking skeleton”, aged 56 and after paying a high toll to get there: camping in the snow, suffering from hunger, the cold, the wind that cut her face and left her swollen and bloody lips.
What was gratifying about her odyssey was the journey, when she lived “immersed in a silence where only the wind sang, in solitudes almost devoid of even plant life, among chaos of fantastic rocks, vertiginous peaks and the horizons of blinding light of the Himalayas” .
Alexandra David had obtained letters of introduction from prominent figures in the Buddhist world. This must have intrigued the Dalai Lama, because he immediately said that he would be happy to talk to her.
Alexandra David’s return to France in 1925
One of the first decisions Alexandra David made upon arriving in Paris was to adopt Yongden as her son.
Alexandra David wrote a lot after her return to Paris about the great experiences she had in Tibet.
She and her son founded the first “gompa” or Tibetan Buddhist prayer center in Europe. This Center of Tibetan wisdom currently houses the “Alexandra David-Néel House Museum”.
Alexandra David traveled to China in 1937
In 1937, and at the age of 69, the desire to explore countries and cultures led her to move to China with her son Aphur Yongden. She organized the trip using the Trans-Siberian to China.
In that distant country the war and the Japanese invasion awaited them. She was only able to stay in China for a short time, where she watched in horror the brutal confrontation between human beings.
She continued traveling in Asia for another 9 years. Finally, in 1945, after World War II, e decided to return to France.
She finally returned to her home in the French town of Digne-les-Bains, where she had a piece of Tibet, there in the Alps of Haute Provence.
On October 7, 1955, when Alexandra David was 87 years old, a sudden illness caused the death of her son Aphur Yongden.
Clear-minded, but heartbroken by sadness at having lost her beloved Aphur, she continued to study.
She undertook a few short trips around Europe, but arthritis finally managed to defeat her lust for adventure.
In 1969, fourteen years after the death of her son, Alexandra David Néel passed away when she was already 101 years old.
Her last wish was that her ashes, along with those of her son, be thrown into the Ganges. This was done and they set out on the final journey together.
Alexandra David Néel had been awarded a gold medal by the Paris Geographical Society and named a Knight of the Legion of Honor.