Did Jesus Live in India and Study Buddhism in the Mountains of Tibet?

Did Jesus spend his missing years studying Buddhism in India? Marcel Theroux visits Ladakh to find out...

Jesus Lived in IndiaBy Marcel Theroux / The Telegraph

My journey to Ladakh began one idle summer afternoon in the dusty stacks of the London Library. I was browsing the volumes in the theology section when I came upon a 19th-century book with an intriguing title: The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. It was a battered brown quarto, written in French by an author with a Russian name: Nicolas Notovitch.

Notovitch's book told an astonishing story. He claimed to have discovered an ancient text in the sacred Pali language that revealed previously unknown aspects of Jesus's life. According to this text, which Notovitch had translated into French, Jesus had spent his missing years -- the years between his childhood and the beginning of his ministry -- studying Buddhism in India. At the age of about 30, he'd returned to the Middle East and the life that is familiar to us from the New Testament.

It is clearly an amazing claim. I was surprised that I knew so little of this book or its mysterious author, but I was able to learn a little more about Notovitch himself. His Wikipedia page claimed he was the son of a Russian nobleman. (This, I am certain, is untrue and the page has since been altered.)

Jesus Lived in IndiaHis book on Jesus had briefly been a best-seller in Europe upon publication in 1894, but had been attacked by mainstream theologians, and Notovitch had disappeared from view. The last thing I found out was that he had served a prison sentence in Siberia in 1901 for articles he'd written about the Russian government. But I also found books -- notably Holger Kersten's rather loopy Jesus Lived in India -- that suggested there might have been something to his story.

Notovitch said that he'd been shown the mysterious manuscript at a monastery called Hemis in the region of Ladakh, while convalescing there from a broken leg. While this area has deep religious and cultural links with Tibet, it's actually part of India. Right up to the 20th century, the altitude and difficult mountain passes preserved the remoteness of Ladakh.

It was beyond most people's ken -- a distant place that few people ever imagined visiting. But, for good or ill, the internet and the expansion of air travel has given us all seven-league boots. I was able to book a direct flight from Delhi to Leh and find a hotel online in the town centre.

Hemis monastery, where Notovitch was laid up with his broken leg, stands on a rocky mountainside in a gap in the astonishing Zanskar range of the Himalayas. I arrived there one January morning, after a two-hour flight to Leh from New Delhi. In Notovitch's era, the long journey by horse into the Himalayas would give travellers time to acclimatise to the thin air.

Nowadays, the abrupt arrival from nearly sea-level is wrenching. My hotel had an oxygen tank in the lobby for travellers struggling with the altitude. Breathing heavily as I took my suitcase off the airport carousel, I felt like I had aged 20 years in the space of the flight.

Before the trip, I'd read a guide to Ladakh by the scholar Janet Rizvi. Her book contained a brief description of every monastery in the area. And yet, in her pages on Hemis, she didn't even mention Notovitch. I wrote to Dr Rizvi to ask her about him. She replied briefly to say that she knew the story of Notovitch and his lost gospel, but found it far-fetched and had never bothered following it up.

When I arrived, it was winter but there had been little snowfall. The landscape was a dusty khaki with a sprinkling of white on the high ground. The cloudless sky was a sapphire colour. I'd packed as though for Siberia in winter, but the days were so mild I didn't need my warm clothes. The peaks of the Zanskar range rose beyond the brown walls of the valley. It was out of season and my driver Geltsen seemed glad to find a foreign tourist. We drove along the Indus River, a thin ribbon of blue in the bottom of a valley dotted with willow, poplar and apricot trees, and passed through settlements of Tibetan exiles who had fled the Chinese occupation of their homeland.

Hemis is in a shady cul de sac of the mountains and snow had clung on there, blocking the road up. Geltsen and I had to dig out the tyres of the car more than once as we drove up to the monastery. I was wheezing from the altitude and had a splitting headache. But I also felt a strange sense of exhilaration: the landscape was vast and sublime, jagged white peaks fenced in the broad river valley.

The exterior of Hemis monastery is austere and blocky, like a Sixties housing development, but its inner courtyards are of garishly painted wood that satisfied my sense of exoticism. Even in the 21st century, I felt a long way from home. Nawang Otsab, the deputy lama, was a thick-set man in his 40s wearing an orange woollen beanie hat and a shiny windcheater. He led us into a low-roofed upper room heated by a wood-burning stove. We sat cross-legged around a low table eating dried apricots and cashew nuts while Geltsen translated for me.

I explained the purpose of my visit: a Russian visitor had been to the monastery, and claimed to have found a manuscript about Jesus studying in India. Did he know anything about it? Nawang Otsab nodded; yes, he was familiar with the tale. In his mind -- and that of others in Ladakh who knew of the claims -- the story was that Jesus had studied in Hemis itself. That's not the story in Notovitch's gospel.

What was the likelihood, I asked, that such a manuscript existed in the monastery library? Nawang Otsab shrugged and said he didn't know. It seemed like the most unlikely answer of all. I felt he was too honest to claim the book existed, but was too aware of the importance of the story to the fortunes of the monastery to deny it completely. Back at my empty hotel, I experienced a sense of deflation. I thought back to my exchange with Dr Rizvi: her instinct had been right.

The clincher, as far I was concerned, was that Nawang Otsab said there were no Pali manuscripts in the library; they were all in Tibetan. It seemed to remove the last possibility that Notovitch had been telling the truth.

That night, there was only one other guest at dinner at my hotel: a US military contractor who was working at the air force base. I was glad to have someone to chat to and since my dad is American, I felt we had something in common. His manner was guarded. I had the feeling that he found something implausible in the contradiction between my English accent and my claim of US citizenship. He definitely didn't want to talk about his work at the base.

Look at Ladakh on a map, and I think his frostiness becomes easier to explain. It stands at the crossroads of Asia, on a strategic fault line between China, India, the contested border with Pakistan, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. My story -- that I was a freelance writer, following a hunch to one of the area's monasteries -- sounded like what spies call a "legend": a plausible cover story that gives the owner licence to probe and ask questions.

His suspicion made me think again about Notovitch. What, in fact, was a Russian journalist doing mooching about in the frontier states of British India at a time when Russia and Britain were both trying to increase influence at the other's expense?

My journey to Ladakh seemed to rule out one possibility: that Notovitch had indeed discovered a lost gospel. But it opened the way to another.

Over the coming months, I would discover that far from being a Russian noble, Notovitch was a Jewish boy from an obscure region of the Russian Empire. And I believe his claim to have discovered a lost gospel was a quirky but futile attempt to curb the wave of anti-Semitism gathering force across Europe at the end of the 19th century.

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