"It is a funny and inconceivable idea that people attach to a place like oysters to their bench, when there is so much to see in this vast world and many walks of life to enjoy."
Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David, better known as Alexandra David-Néel had many strings to her bow: Orientalist, tibetologist, opera singer, journalist, writer and explorer; we will decide whether the Muses were generous with this French-Belgian woman, born in Saint-Mandé on 24 October 1868.
Although she excelled in many disciplines, above all she is famous for the time she spent in Lhassa, Tibet, in 1924. It was a genuine feat because she was the first European woman to do so. A year later, the newspapers reported on her adventures and made her famous.
Alexandra was the only daughter of Louis David, a Freemason of Huguenot descent, a schoolteacher, who was a Republican activist during the 1848 Revolution, and a friend of the anarchist geographer, Élisée Reclus, and of Alexandrine Borghmans, a Catholic Belgian of Scandinavian and Siberian origin. Louis and Alexandrine met in Belgium, where the schoolteacher and editor of a Republican review was exiled when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte succeeded to the Imperial throne. In 1871, outraged by the execution of the last Communards in front of the Communards' Wall at Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, Louis David took his two-year old daughter to witness the event so that she might see and never forget the face of death, the savagery of humans. In 1873, the David family moved to Belgium. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, she spent time with Élisée Reclus, who led her to take an interest in the anarchist (Max Stirner, Michel Bakounine, etc.) and feminist ideas of the time. When she was 21 years old, Alexandra converted to Buddhism, as she noted in her diary published in 1986 under the title "La Lampe de sagesse". It was at the Guimet Museum that she discovered her Orientalist and Buddhist vocation. In 1890, in order to perfect her English, a language essential for a career as an Orientalist, she departed for London where she spent hours at the British Museum and also met the various members of the Theosophical Society. The following year, on her return to Paris, she learned Sanskrit, Tibetan and followed various classes at the Collège de France and the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes.
Egged on by her father, Alexandra entered the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles, where she studied piano and singing. In order to help her parents, who found themselves down on their luck, the talented young woman, who received the first prize for singing, took over position of lead singer at the Hanoi Opera (Indochina) under the name Alexandra Myrial during the 1895-1896 and 1896-1897 seasons. There, she played the role of Violetta in La Traviata (by Verdi), and sang in Les Noces de Jeannette (by Victor Massé), Faust and Mireille (by Gounod), Lakmé (by Léo Delibes), Carmen (by Bizet) and Thaïs (by Massenet). At the time, she corresponded with Frédéric Mistral and Jules Massenet.
Between 1897 and 1900, she shared her life with the pianist Jean Haustont, with whom she wrote Lidia, a musical in one act for which Haustont composed the music and Alexandra the libretto. She sang for the Athens Opera from November 1899 to January 1900, then, in July of that year, at the Tunis Opera. In Tunis, on 4 August 1904, she married Philippe Néel de Saint-Sauveur, a French chief engineer with the Chemins de Fer Tunisiens. She was 36 years old. Their married life, sometimes stormy but always a matter of mutual respect, came to an end on 9 August 1911, when she decided to set out on her own on her third trip to India. She promised Philippe that she would return to the family home in eighteen months' time: it was fourteen years later, in May 1925, that the spouses met each other again.
Alexandra David-Néel arrived in Sikkim in 1912. She became friends with the sovereign of this Indian State, Sidkeong Tulku, and visited many Buddhist monasteries in order to perfect her knowledge of Buddhism. In 1914, at one of these monasteries, she met the young Aphur Yongden, who later became her adopted son. The two of them decided to retreat to a cave at an altitude of more than 4,000 m, in the north of Sikkim.
Alexandra and Yongden then travelled to Korea and Peking in China. Their journey lasted several years and led them through the Gobi and Mongolia, with a three-year break at the Kumbum monastery in Tibet, where she translated the famous Prajnaparamita, before setting out, disguised as a beggar and monk, for Lhassa, which she reached in 1924. Alexandra meets Swami Asuri Kapila (Cesar Della Rosa). They stayed there for two months and during this time, they visited the holy city and the major monasteries in the surroundings: Drepung, Sera, Ganden, Samye, etc. But Alexandra David-Néel was finally unmasked and reported to Tsarong Shapé (the governor of Lhassa), and returned to France.
Alexandra David-Néel only really settled at the age of 78 after having visited the length and breadth of Asia. After retiring to Digne, the one who Tibetans considered to be a God spent her time studying and writing. A woman of action and a writer, she died at the age of almost 101 years after introducing the Western world to Buddhist and Hindu philosophies.