Thursday, April 29, 2010

Strychnine and Yak Mane: The Indomitable Alexandra David Neel

Opera singer, mystic, explorer, intrepid world traveler, Alexandra David Neel believed in Immortality and Reincarnation. She studied the doctrines of sages in China, India and Tibet.

Alexandra David Neel is perhaps one of the most informed and intelligent travelers to crisscross the world repeatedly within the last two centuries. Of all her numerous and incredible exploits her trip to Lhasa, sacred capital of Tibet inflamed the collective imagination of the world. Lhasa was forbidden to foreigners under pain of death. Alexandra spent months there living and studying amongst the monks. She was astonished to discover when she reached India after leaving Tibet that she was a celebrity.

Requests for lectures, autographs and conferences the world over inundated her. Against her will, she became a travel Ion.

She was born in France, the 24th of October (Scorpio, that explains quite a lot) in 1868 and died over a hundred years later on September 9, 1969 in Digne, Provence (France) after having renewed her passport for a new foray into the unknown and the mysterious lands which she was determined still existed,

She was born with an unconquerable spirit and a sense that the world was strange and mad. Her mission was to penetrate its innermost secrets. Her father was a free thinker and her mother a bigot. Of course she was an enfant terrible, an argumentative adolescent and a teen anarchist. She ran away to London at age 15, her restless spirit disgusted by the slave labor of women and children and the savage daily murders. She escaped to Brussels, found it deplorable and headed for Switzerland. She crossed the mountains of Saint Gotthard on foot. At age 18, she found or perhaps stole a bicycle and without a word to anyone, decided to travel to Spain from Switzerland with her bicycle as her only means of transportation.

She returned to Paris and discovered Asia.  A whole world to discover and touch with her mind, heart and soul! A friend of her father, Elisee Reclus was a rich Orientalist with an impressive library of books on India, China, Tibet, and Buddhism. Alexandra lost herself in the books and determined that she would go to all these exotic worlds and more. She would live there and learn their innermost secrets.       

She was a genius, so the Sorbonne allowed her to attend classes an Observer.
'Women are not supposed to be creatures of Learning," she told her father. She learnt Oriental Languages - Sanskrit, Persian, Japanese and Mandarin. In particular she was drawn to the life and works of Prince Siddhartha, Lord Buddha.

And then she suddenly inherited money, from an anonymous benefactor. It was not for her to question, only to give thanks. Alexandra swiftly left for India where she initiated writing a series of essays and articles, which the French newspapers eagerly published. When she returned to Paris, she was famous and sought after. She kept her head and her wits, perfecting Sanskrit and Hindu Philosophy.

Something was lacking in her life. Ah! The Opera beckoned. She studied singing at the Paris and Brussels Conservatory of Music. Her first starring role came in 1895 at the Hanoi Opera House. Vietnam did not exist except in the heart and minds of the Vietnamese. The country was known as Indo-China and it was an unwilling colony of France.  In a short time, Alexandra became the toast of Indo-China singing Bel Canto. She toured Europe, singing in Spain, Greece ad Tunis where a perfect Don Giovanni in all his splendor seduced her. Tall, handsome, lithe, turquoise eyes, fascinating moustache, elegant and intelligent. At 37, Philippe Neel was the Head of the entire network of railroads, which linked Algeria and Tunis. She married him in a few weeks and then quickly realized that the honors heaped upon her, her studies, the conferences, lectures, publications, even her sensual life with Philippe was not enough.

"Mon couer, my heart, why am I so unhappy?" she asked her husband.

The philandering husband, though very much taken with Alexandra could not cope with such a strong, restless woman, so he suggested she take a year's Sabbatical in Asia for more research.

A radiant Alexandra aged 43, passionately embraced Philippe on the decks of the ship "City of Naples" on the 11th of August 1911, Fourteen years would pass before they would see each other again in January of 1925,

In India she was already a celebrity. She attracted even more attention because she went to local hostels and temple, studied sacred texts and always wore a long orange silk foulard.

In Sikkim, in 1914, a country nestled in the Himalayas she visited many monasteries and studied Tantric manuscripts. For the uninitiated Tantra is about gaining inner force and power through sex. The hereditary Ruler of Sikkim befriended her and promised to assist her in meeting the Dali Lama.

In Europe its youth were murdering each other at the rate of one a minute. WWi had begun. Alexandra preferred not to think of karmic horrors she could do nothing about.

In one of the monasteries in Sikkim, Alezandra met Aphur Yongden, a 15 year old who had once been a Panchen Lama in a former life and whose grandfather was a Lama sorcerer who had the power of bringing on rain and hail.

"It is decreed: Travel and Explore," prophesied the young Yongden.

The two then climbed the Himalayas up to a height of 3,900 meters. It was an impossible feat for most humans.  Alexandra and Yongden had subjected themselves to all the tantric breathing exercises they had learnt in the Monasteries so it was not such an arduous undertaking. During a tempest, they found a cavern and spent three years with one of the most extraordinary - Gomchens (hermits) - Masters of the time.

Alexandra would be known throughout Asia as 'Lantern of Wisdom' and Yongden as "Ocean of Compassion:"

In 1916, the two crossed the frontier from Sikkim into Tibet. The English authorities discovered them and ordered their expulsion. They had declared Tibet a Forbidden City to everyone: foreigner and Chinese alike. At that time, China belonged to every powerful country in the world except to the Chinese. Alexandra decided the best course for them would be to travel to Japan, Korea and then cross over into China.

Back in France Philippe Neel understood that it was pointless for him to insist on his wife's return. As Mozart's Don Giovanni, he did not lack for adoring females, which he tired of easily and replaced them without difficulty. He limited himself to sending Alexandra money whenever she asked for it.

In 1918, after the First World War in Europe ended, Alexandra and Yongden crossed 2,500 km. in China on foot to Gansu province evading the English authorities. Civil war raged in China - it was warlord against warlord in most of the interior of the country. Slaughters, Rapes, massacres, took place almost every day. Pulmonary Bubonic plague was raging over all of China. Corpses covered the land. They piled up in the ports. The English blockaded the ports. No ship could enter the harbor. Alexandra and Yongden remained immune and unharmed. The passage through Gansu province, which was even then, a part of Tibet, took 3 years instead of the 3 months she had erroneously thought. In 192i, they arrived in Tachtienlu at last. This was the caravan road that would take them to Lhasa " The Land of Snow". She learnt that the word Tibet was unknown to the Tibetans themselves. The way would be dangerous, incredible and almost unendurable. They crossed it entirely on foot. She begged for food. But sometimes they fasted for weeks for there was nothing to be found in that ravaged land. She and Yongden took small doses of strychnine to keep up their energy.  She had decided to go alone with Yongden with few provisions. The carriers and the servants had been paid off long ago.

"They gossip too much. They will surely sell the information to the English or to a Warlord."

She wore a Tibetan costume but what to do about her skin and hair? Tibetan women braided their thick, knee-length hair; her hair was not long or thick enough. Surreptitiously, she cut off the mane of a yak, braided it and attached it to her own hair with a circlet. That was then covered with a dirty cap covered in lard, as a typical poor Tibetan woman would wear. Her hair was light brown so she had to continuously put thick black drawing ink on her hair to ensure that it matched her braid. Huge gold earrings that came down on her shoulders, such as the ones typically worn by the women had changed the shape of her face. Since she was dressed an old woman - in Tibet a woman of 35 is considered old, her face was covered with a mixture of charcoal and cacao powder with grease on top just as the hags of Tibet looked.

They lived as monks begging bowls in their hands, Mother and son so as not to arouse any suspicion from the authorities. Philippe had no way of sending her money because she was on the move constantly. The few banks were owned and controlled by the English. 

" The Tibetans had the terrible habit whenever they killed a beast, to place in the stomach the kidneys, heart, liver and intestines inside the animal. They then sewed this into a sack and let it rot for weeks if not months or even longer. "

Alexandra avoided this nauseating dish by feigning a stomach ailment.

"You are always timely in your illnesses when we are faced with disasters," gritted Yongden.

And then before them stood Lhasa and many-splendored Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lama.

N. B. It is not Dali, it is pronounced Dalie as in lie.

Alexandra gazed up in disbelief and wonder. "YOU CANNOT ENTER HERE," these peremptory words affirmed by the English authorities invaded her awe. 

"Twice if not more, they yelled that," laughed Alexandra. She continued laughing hidden in the woods.

A remote monastery in the mountains was their home for a few months. They chanted and prayed with the monks all night. Alexandra noted that many sat in the steadily falling snow, dressed only in a loincloth, for a whole night without suffering from the effects of hypothermia. This fascination led her to delve even more profoundly into Tantric yoga to learn the secrets of such powers. She never revealed in any of her writings how these phenomena were carried out. Historians suspect that she swore to the monks that she would never tell. These revelations would die with her.

Alas! Alexandra and Yongden escaped from Tibet in the blackest night. Because of her righteousness, she had been called as a witness in a local dispute. With an English judge, she faced the real possibility of execution by a firing squad.

Back at last in 1924 to Europe, with Yongden in tow. Philippe was thrilled to embrace her but cold towards the young Tibetan monk. Her proposal to adopt him as a son ended the marriage abruptly. But Alexandra was by now, a notable public figure. Her life was crammed with conferences, lectures, and the publication of "Voyage d'une Parisienne a Lhasa" The Voyage of a Parisian to Lhasa. The book was published in 1927-1928. It was an instant best seller. With the royalties and the large sums she had accumulated from her interviews and conferences; Alexandra was independently wealthy. She and Albert Aphur Yongden returned to China.

"The Dao (Tao) and Daoism is what we must delve into and concentrate all our efforts."

She had a large house near the Temple of Shao Lin. It inspired her to meet with the monks frequently and collect manuscripts as well as write her thoughts on manuscripts in Mandarin. Her idyllic life of study and contemplation amidst nature was rent asunder by the bloodiest Civil War China had ever known in modern Times. The Communists led by Mao Dse Dong and Jhou en Lai and the Guomintang (Nationalist) under Jiang Kai Shek fought to the death. An interminable number of Warlords joined in the slaughter changing sides as much as five tines in one day.

The 69-year-old Alexandra lost everything. Her house was burnt, and her manuscripts used as firewood. Many monks at Shao Lin died horrifying deaths, tortured and massacred by the Communists. For 16 months, Alexandra wandered all over China on foot, dressed as a peasant woman with her eye severely pulled back into her scalp and held with strong rubber paste to blend in amongst the masses. She was always just one step ahead of the Communists, the warlords (who itched to kidnap her and ask for a huge ransom) the Nationalists whose interest in capturing her was because she had never declared her support for them. Lest we forget the English. By now, the entire world was aware of her exploits in Lhasa, Tibet. The manhunt for her was on.

" The woman's a subversive. She broke the Law. She isn't English and she made us look like fools."

Japan prepared to invade Manchuria. Alexandra spoke Japanese fluently, but she was concerned because of the aggressiveness, which the local Japanese officials displayed regarding their invasion.

They stayed in China regardless of any consequences, in a city called Tancienlu for four years. It was close to the Tibetan border and it proved to be less tumultuous in comparison to the constant death and destruction elsewhere in China. All of Asia was in Japanese hands in one way or another. They were trapped. Not even a spiral of escape existed anywhere. Fifteen years would pass before Mao Dse Dong would liberate China. She wrote feverishly and buried her papers in metal bags. She meditated and chanted. All the Chinese knew her as Mama because she cured them with her knowledge of herbs. After the years she had spent in Japan, her knowledge of Shinto probably saved their lives. For the high-ranking Japanese officials treated the old Chinese Lady with dignity and respect.

She came back to a ravaged France and Europe in 1946.  Phiippe Neel embraced her warmly. He was cold towards the young monk. When Alexandra expressed a wish to adopt him as their son, Philippe refused. Alexandra terminated the marriage abruptly. Henceforth Yongden was a David. Never mind the law.

A chalet amid the perfumed flowers in Provence attracted her attention. She and Yongden lived there immersed in books, which they wrote and studied. People bought them as quickly as the books were published in America. Yet in spite of the hungry times in Europe, the rich being always rich, and perhaps more so in times of war bought every book she published. Alexandra never lacked physical comfort after spending nearly a lifetime of deprivation, starvation and threats of execution in China.

Yongde died in 1955, yearning to return to Tibet and to a China now closed to all gwailo - foreign devils as well as to Han Chinese. Alexandra had lost her son, soul mate, fellow monk and writer.

Once more, she plunged herself into her studies, conferences and lectures at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. She traveled all over free Europe. She was in her 80's and in her 90's.  It was her refuge against loss and pain. In 1969, she retired to her home in Provence, raising over 500 varieties of roses. Retirement was a bore, so she embarked on a series of trips to Italy, Germany, England, Scotland and Spain Her eagle's eye sought out the hidden part of these countries.

In 1973, the ashes of Alexandra David-Neel and Yongden David were scattered together in the sacred rivers of the Ganges and Benares of India according to their last wishes.       


  1. Fascinating! This woman's exploits AND to what lengths she went intrigued me. I have great admiration for her!

  2. Thanks for your very interesting blog, I'm curious to see your next entries! In this text about Alexandra, there seems to be a passage that is repeated about her going back to Europe and trying to convince her husband to adopt her protégé you might want to edit.
    Fascinating women!

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