v 7.00.00
23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

(Click here for a photogallery, arranged alphabetically by surname)

Since the 1850s, Tibet had shut its frontiers to foreigners. Many Westerners tried to reach the 'forbidden country', but often failed. The early explorers of Tibet were attracted to the country for different purposes, either scientific, political or spiritual. Some of them succeeded in reaching Tibet and Lhasa by guile, or stayed at the Tibetan borderlands. The explorers of Tibet provided the Western audience with more knowledge about the Himalayan region, notably through their travel accounts. Some of them can also be considered pioneers in the field of Tibetology, having produced scholarly work on Tibetan civilization.

In 1865, Great Britain engaged in a secret operation that consisted of mapping Tibet, using a team of Indian spies disguised as pilgrims or traders. In 1872, a Russian explorer and colonel, Nicholas Przhevalsky (1839 – 1888) succeeded in penetrating Tibet from the North but failed to reach Lhasa.

In 1892, Annie Taylor, an English missionary with the China Inland Mission who had arrived in Asia in 1884, was the first Western woman to penetrate Lhasa. Although her recounting of her experience in Tibet does not include significant information about Tibetan culture, it can be compared to the chronicles of late Victorian travelers in the Himalayan region like Nina Elizabeth Mazzuchelli, Isabelle Bird Bishop, Fanny Bullock Workman and Jane Duncan.

In 1904, a military expedition from the British Empire was sent to Tibet, led by Col Francis Younghusband (1863-1942). The expedition entered Lhasa by force and imposed a treaty that allowed only the British to enter Tibet. Charles Bell was set as the political representative for Tibet, and became a scholar and advisor of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Laurence Austine Waddell (1854-1938), an explorer and collector who had stayed in Sikkim from 1885 to 1895, participated in the expedition as a medical officer, and accounted it in Lhasa and its Mysteries (1905). During his stay in Sikkim, he had closely studied Lamaism, and in 1895 published The Buddhism of Tibet or Lamaism.

However, many foreign explorers continued to try to reach Tibet, breaking the British rule, like the Swedish explorer and geographer Sven Hedin (1865-1952), who worked on the mapping of Tibet in the 1900s and published A Conquest of Tibet in 1934.

An anarchist, opera singer, journalist, feminist and adventurer, Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969) became acquainted with Buddhism during her studies at the Sorbonne in the 1900s. In 1911, she embarked on a journey to Asia that lasted fourteen years. Fluent in Tibetan and very well-versed in Tibetan culture, she entered Lhasa aged 53 disguised as a Tibetan beggar-woman. Her work on Tibet includes: My Journey to Lhasa (1927), Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1931), Initiates and Initiations in Tibet (1931) and The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects (1967). Based on both scholarly and popular lectures, David-Néel's writings about Tibet occupied a singular place somewhere between the academic and the vulgar. She claimed for herself a mix of bookish learning and direct engagement with her object of interest: "There are great men at the Sorbonne, who know all the roots of the words and the historical dates, but I wish to live philosophy on the spot and undergo physical and spiritual training, not just read about them."

W Y Evans-Wentz (1868-1965) was born in an American family that had turned to spiritualism and theosophy. He studied religion, philosophy and history at Stanford. In the 1910s, he engaged in a journey that would lead him from Egypt to the Himalayan region and would last three decades. He aimed at "seeking out the Wise Men of the East. Sometimes I lived with city-dwellers, sometimes in jungle and mountain solitude among yogis, sometimes in monasteries with monks; sometimes I went on pilgrimages as one of the salvation-seeking multitude." In 1927, he published The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a canonical text for Westerners interested in Tibet. He was instrumental in the translation and publication of three important texts in the field of Tibetology at the time: Tibet's Great Yogi, Milarepa (1928), Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (1935), and The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (1967). Although Evans-Wentz only spent one day in Tibet, he has greatly contributed to the bringing of Tibetan texts to a Western audience.

In 1921-1922, George Pereira (1865-1923), a British explorer and diplomatist, walked from Beijing to Lhasa. His journals were edited by Francis Younghusband in Peking to Lhasa; The Narrative of Journeys in the Chinese Empire Made by the Late Brigadier-General George Pereira, published in 1925.

From 1922 to 1949, Joseph Rock (1884-1962), an Austrian-American botanist and linguist, conducted scientific surveys in a vast area that included Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Tibet. Rock left a great collection of pictures from his sojourn, documenting the nature and people of Tibet at the beginning of the 20th century.

Marco Pallis (1895-1989), a British [Anglo-Greek] mountaineer, first visited southern Tibet in 1923. In 1933 and 1936, he stayed in monasteries in Sikkim and Ladakh. After World War II, he returned to the region and studied under Tibetan lamas near Shigatse. Pallis wrote two books recounting his experiences in Tibet; Peaks and Lamas (1939), a bestseller, and The Way and the Mountain (1960). His last publication, A Buddhist Spectrum (1980), includes some of the articles he wrote for the journal Studies in Comparative Religion.

In 1927, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Tucci (1894-1984) stayed in India in the 1920s where he learned about Buddhism and Tibetan. He was a professor at the University of Rome La Sapienza and published many scholarly books about Tibet.

Born Ernst Hoffman in Germany in 1898, Lama Anagarika Govinda (1898-1985) joined a community of German Buddhist monks in Ceylon in 1928. In 1931, at a Buddhist conference in Darjeeling, he met his Tibetan guru, Tomo Geshe Rinpoche, who initiated him into the Gelugpa sect. He spent the next thirty years in northern India and Sikkim, making several trips to Tibet. In 1933, he founded the Order of the Arya Maitreya Mandala, which aimed at preserving and disseminating the Tibetan religious heritage. During the 1960s and 1970s, Lama Govinda lectured in Europe and America. He spent his last years in California. He is the author of several bestsellers that were in vogue in the 1970s, like his autobiographic The Way of the White Clouds (1966) or Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism (1959).

At the beginning of the Second World War, Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006) and Peter Aufschnaider (1899-1973), two Austrian alpinists were made prisoners by the British government in India. They escaped and reached Lhasa where they were warmly welcomed. During their imposed exile in Lhasa, Harrer, who had a Nazi past, became a good friend of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Aufschnaider worked on the mapping of the region. After his return to Austria, Harrer published a travel book recounting his story, Seven Years in Tibet, that would later be adapted for the silver screen (Seven years in Tibet, Jean-Jacques Annaud,1997).


Harry Oldmeadow, Journeys East – 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions; Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2004