Icons: Alexandra David-Neel
For any european woman born in the 19th century, pursuits including extensive solo travel, conversion to buddhism and running around with the likes of anarchists would have been strongly discouraged. Similarly, the idea of venturing into Tibet - a region which at the time was entirely off limits to foreigners would have been impossible. It could be a combination of these accomplishments that makes Alexandra David-Neel so interesting and admirable as not only an explorer, but a spiritualist, anarchist, feminist and writer (whose work and teachings just so happened to be an inspiration to beat poets Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and esotericist Benjamin Creme).
Born on 24 January 1868 in Paris, France to French and Belgian parents, Alexandra David-Néel started her adventures young by running away from home and attempting to walk to England. By 18 she was a member of many secret societies and had started writing for feminist journal ‘La Fronde’ while studying in in Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society.
Through inheriting a little money in 1891 David-Neel was able to travel to India and Sri Lanka for the first time for just over a year and promised to return. Fast forward through joining a cult, a career as an opera singer, a marriage and a few money issues she was able to return to India in 1911 to study sanskrit where she was the first european woman to be honoured by the College of Sanskrit in Benares with an honorary doctorate of philosophy. Upon arriving in Sikkim in 1912 she felt she needed to further her knowledge in buddhism and spent the next four years visiting every monastery in the region and learning everything she could. These years saw her meeting with the Dali Lama, learning the tibetan technique of tummo (where body heat is controlled by breathing) and living in a cave.
She met a young monk named Aphur Yongden, whom she would travel with and eventually adopt as her son. The pair ventured into Tibet on two occasions aiming to reach the city of Lhasa, crossing into a forbidden territory. Unfortunately the trips ended with her expulsion from Sikkim by the British authorities and saw her traveling again to India and then Japan.
However in 1916 she disguised herself as a beggar in heavy cloaks and dirt and made it back into Tibet with her son, merging among a crowd of pilgrims on their way to celebrate the Monlam Prayer festival, they finally made it to Lhasa.
Her stories, adventures and teachings have been shared globally, her most famous works being “My Journey to Lhasa”, “The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects” and “Magic and Mystery in Tibet” and she continued to travel and study well into her 70s, finally purchasing a property in France she would name ‘The Fortress of Meditation’. She died at the age of 101 at her home in Digne, her ashes were taken to Varanasi along with her son’s to be scattered in the Ganges.