David Snellgrove

The above photo of the authors with David Snellgrove — a renowned scholar of the languages, history and religion of Buddhist India and Tibet — was taken near Turin Italy in July 2015. We had tried to get an interview with Snellgrove several times without success. Snellgrove was 94 and living with photographer Carl Stacey in Pinerolo, Italy. Stacey and his wife took Snellgrove into their home when the infirmities of his advanced age made it difficult for him to live alone. They installed an elevator in their two-story home so he could avoid the stairs.

We had already planned a trip to France to do a second interview with Tenzin Namdak at Shenten Monastery, a Bon monastery about 180 miles southwest of Paris near the village of Saint-Philbert-du-Peuple. A week before our trip Stacey finally told us we could interview Snellgrove, but it would have to be the day after our arrival in Paris. We scotched plans to travel to the monastery by train and instead rented a car when we arrived at Orly Airport, then set off on the nearly 500 mile journey to Pinerolo. We drove for about 10 hours, spending a hefty amount at expensive French toll booths on the expressway. The tolls were so expensive that lower income earners almost certainly were limited to the slower side roads, a seeming contradiction to the French national slogan, “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

We arrived in the evening and drove up a narrow, winding road to the top of a forested hill above Pinerolo. At the top overlooking the village sat an estate with a 500-year-old mansion that had been converted into a bed and breakfast. The owner was a young woman who told us the estate had been in her family for generations. The mansion had fallen into disrepair and she and her husband had recently renovated it and opened it to guests. She told us that a famous battle had been fought on the estate in the 1600s or 1700s, but her grasp of history was slim and she couldn’t provide any details. The only battle I could find was a siege of a French force of Louis the XIV in a Pinerolo fortress by an alliance of European nations in 1693 during the Nine Years War. Nevertheless she was a gracious host and the accommodations were comfortable and well appointed. The furnishings were redolent of the 17th century. We could easily imagine ourselves as guests of an Italian patrician.

Carl Stacey picked us up the next morning and drove us to his home in the valley. He was cordial and good natured, cracking jokes and doing everything in his power to make our short stay comfortable. We met Snellgrove in the first-floor den. He took the elevator to his second-floor study for the interview and we took the stairs. Snellgrove was reluctant to give us the details that interested us, regarding them as inconsequential trivia. He constantly referred us to his book, “Asian Commitment,” that describes his travels in the orient. We had thoroughly digested his book. We have two copies, one of them heavily marked with colored Post-it tags sprouting from its pages. Professor Snellgrove’s force of character was still evident even in his frail state and it was an honor to have met him. Being in his presence helped us understand how he accomplished so much in a life full of adventure in his quest for knowledge.

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