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.) His 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.