Historical non-parents: Alexandra David-Néel

By Allix Denham 

Alexandra David-Néel

Alexandra David-Néel

Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969) was a traveller, writer and Buddhist, who spent much of her life in India and Tibet, and was the first European woman ever to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa, in 1924. Her former home, built in Tibetan style in the south of France, now houses a museum dedicated to her life and travels.

David-Néel was born to a French father and Belgian mother, the only child of an unhappy marriage. From a young age she was fascinated by spirituality and travel, but began her working life as an opera singer, based at the Hanoi opera house for two years.

She went on to sing in Athens and Tunis, where she met her future husband, Philippe Néel. They married in 1904 but she found marriage suffocating, and left seven years later, for India and Tibet.

David-Néel never wanted children, preferring her independence, but she did adopt a young Tibetan monk, Aphur Yongden, who was to remain her lifelong companion.

They met in Sikkim, where she was studying Buddhism, and together spent the next fourteen years visiting monasteries and receiving the teachings of Tibetan yogis. They also visited temples and lamas in Tibet, but did so without permission from the British colonial authorities, who expelled them from Sikkim.

Unable to return to Europe because of the war, they visited Japan, Korea and China, where they crossed the Gobi desert, before spending a further three years in a monastery in Tibet.

Disguised as a beggar and a monk they entered the forbidden city of Lhasa, but David-Néel’s insistence on washing daily in the river aroused suspicion, and they had to leave before being denounced to the authorities.

She returned to France to great media fanfare, and went on to give lectures and write a book about her experiences: “My Journey to Lhasa”. She bought and rebuilt her house in Digne-les-Bains, an area she referred to as “Himalayas for Lilliputians”. It was from there that she wrote around twenty travel and spiritual books, the best known of which is “Magic and Mystery in Tibet”.

In 1937 she went to China to study Taoism, before returning to Tibet for another five years, and then France, where she continued to write.

She was devastated when, in 1955, Yongden died suddenly, but despite her own failing health, continued to work until her death, days before her 101st birthday.

It’s doubtful she ever regretted not having biological children, once writing: “Why are we put on this earth if it is to leave like this? There are people who want to bring children into the world to inflict on them the pain of growing old and dying… I find this a fierce idea.”

Allix Denham is a writer currently based in France. She and her partner have no children, but entertain the neighbour’s cat on a regular basis.


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