Historical Figures

Alexandra David-Néel, tireless explorer

Louise Eugenie Alexandrine Marie David , known as Alexandra David-Néel (1868 – 1969), was a Franco-Belgian explorer, journalist and writer. In 1924, she was the first European woman to stay in Lhasa (Tibet).

A militant childhood

Only daughter of Alexandrine Borghmans and Louis David, Alexandra was born in Saint-Mandé in France on October 24, 1868 Against the advice of her mother, a Catholic, her father had her baptized in secret into the Protestant faith. In May 1871, shocked by the execution of 147 Communards in front of the Fédérés wall in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, Louis David took Alexandra, who was not yet three years old, there to remember this violence. Two years later, the family moved to Belgium.

During her childhood and adolescence, Alexandra rubbed shoulders with Élisée Reclus, a Belgian anarchist geographer friend of her mother, who introduced her to the anarchist and feminist ideas of the time. She would later contribute to a feminist journal but moved away from certain positions of the time, preferring in particular to fight for economic emancipation than for the right to vote.

Travel to India and Buddhism

From 1888, Alexandra attended Freemasonry and then converted to Buddhism the following year. Very interested in the Orient and the career of an orientalist, she learned Sanskrit and Tibetan, followed various lessons and perfected her English in London. However, pushed by her father, she also entered the Royal Conservatory of Brussels to learn singing and piano. Between 1895 and 1897, she was first singer at the Hanoi Opera, then sang in Athens and Tunis where she met Philippe Néel, a distant cousin and chief engineer of the Tunisian Railways.

On August 4, 1904, Alexandra married Philippe Néel. In 1911, she left alone for a third trip to India, promising her husband to return after eighteen months; she will return fourteen years later, during which the two spouses remain in contact by correspondence. In 1912, she began a journey in Sikkim (Himalayas) and perfected her knowledge of Buddhism in the monasteries of the region. There she meets Aphur Yongden, who will become her adopted son and with whom she retires to a cave more than 4,000 meters above sea level. The same year, accompanied by Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup, who serves as her guide, interpreter and Tibetan teacher , she was received in audience by the 13 th Dalai Lama, who gave him additional explanations on Buddhism. She receives other teachings from superiors of monasteries (gomchen ), one of which gave him the religious name of Yshé Tömé ("Lamp of Wisdom").

Stay in Lhasa

July 13, 1916, ignoring the prohibitions instigated by missionaries, Alexandra David-Néel left for Tibet accompanied by Yongden. Very well received, she visited temples and monasteries there, met religious people and consulted Buddhist writings. But his stay displeased the British colonial authorities who expelled him on his return to Sikkim. Alexandra and Yongden then travel to India, Japan, Korea and then China. From there, accompanied by a Tibetan lama, they cross China from east to west for several years before stopping for three years at the monastery of Kumbum.

In 1924, disguised as a beggar and a monk, Alexandra and Yongden spent two months in Lhasa, the forbidden city, and visited the surrounding monasteries. Alexandra ends up being unmasked but leaves the scene before the governor of the city intervenes. The following year, the two travelers reach France and Alexandra discovers the notoriety that her adventure has earned her. She made the headlines and her story was published in a book. Settling in Digne-les-Bains for a few years, she legally adopted Yongden, wrote her travel stories and gave lectures in Europe.

In 1937, aged 69, Alexandra returned to China with Yongden. They arrive there in the midst of the Sino-Japanese war and discover its consequences, with famine and epidemics, and flee the fighting. In 1941, Alexandra learned of the death of her husband, an event that touched her deeply. In 1946, Alexandra arrived in India before returning to France at the age of 78 to resume writing. In 1955, a new hard blow struck her through the death of Yongden.

Alexandra David-Néel died on September 8, 1969, at the age of one hundred, leaving behind a voluminous work and an important correspondence. His ashes and those of his adopted son are scattered in the Ganges.