And did those feet walk upon India’s sacred land?
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 rious author, but I was able to learn n a little more about Notovitch vitch himself. His Wikipedia page claimed he was the he son of a Russian nobleman. (This, I am certain, is untrue true and the page has since been altered.) His s book on Jesus had d briefly been a beststseller 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 Ja Janet Rizvi. Her book contained a brief d description of every monast monastery in the area. And yet, in h her pages on Hemis, sh she didn’t even mention Notovitch. I wrote to Dr Rizvi to ask h her about him. She replied briefly to say that she kn knew the story of Not Notovitch and his lost go gospel, but found it far-f far-fetched and had never bothered foll following it up.
When I arrived, it wa 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
Young Ladakhi novice monks; writer Nicolas Notovitch, top
The Hemis monastery is in Ladakh’s remote mountain region