The Thar desert in India is full of ironies—one of them being the Bishnoi community of Rajasthan. Here, peace is maintained with aggression and robust health rubs shoulders with regular famine. Here penniless women flaunt heavy gold jewelery and wild animals leave the supposed security of jungles to stroll around village huts and farmlands. Not to mention the fact that the Bishnois worship nature in all its manifestations. Not the ripe, yielding nature of ancient pagan societies, but the ruthless and demanding desert where a desolate horizon meets a blazing sky. Here, women suckle motherless deer, die to save trees, go hungry to provide food for animals and live a strictly sattvic (simple) life.
The Bishnois, a Vaishnavite sect, living in western Rajasthan on the fringe of the Thar desert, have for centuries, been conserving the flora and fauna to the extent of sacrificing their lives to protect the environment. For these nature-loving people, protection of the environment, wildlife, and plants is a part and parcel of their sacred traditions. The basic philosophy of this religion is that all living things have a right to survive and share all resources.
They inhabit the area around Barmer and traces their ancestry to a saint and ascetic named Jambhaji, regarded by them as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, whom they worship. An interesting rationale for the name of Bishnoi is that the sect follows twenty-nine doctrines and `Bishnoi` in the local dialect translates to twenty-nine, like, Bis (twenty) + noi (nine) = Bisnoi.
In the fifteenth century, Jambhoji, a resident of a village near Jodhpur, had a vision that the cause of the drought that had hit the area and hardship that followed was caused by people’s interference with nature. Thereafter, he became a sanyasi or a holy man and came to be known as Swami Jambeshwar Maharaj. This was the beginning of the Bishnoi sect. He laid down 29 tenets for his followers which included a ban on killing animals, a ban to the felling of trees – especially the khejri – which grows extensively in these areas, and using material other than wood for cremations. Nature protection was given foremost importance in these tenets. Since then, the sect has religiously followed these tenets.
There are many stories about how the Bishnois have beaten up hunters and poachers for intruding in their area. The sacrifice made by Amrita Devi and over 350 others is a heart-rending example of their devotion. The Maharaja of Jodhpur wanted to build a new palace and required wood for it. To procure this his men went to the area around the village of Jalnadi to fell the trees. When Amrita Devi saw this she rushed out to prevent the men and hugged the first tree, but the axe fell on her and she died on the spot. Before dying she uttered the now famous couplet of the Bishnois, ‘A chopped head is cheaper than a felled tree’. People from 83 surrounding villages rushed to prevent the men from felling the trees and by the end of the day more than 350 had lost their lives.
When the king heard about this, he was filled with remorse and came to the village to personally apologize to the people. He promised them that they would never again be asked to provide timber to the ruler, no khejri tree would ever be cut, and hunting would be banned near the Bishnoi villages. The village of Jalnadi thus came to be called Khejarli.
The Bishnois will go to any extent to protect the wildlife and the forests around them.Recently this sect was in the news due to the activities of some Mumbai film group that had gone on a hunting spree in their area targeting the black buck. The Bishnois, in keeping to their tradition, prevented them from doing so and lodged a complaint against two of them in the local police station.
The heartland of the Bishnois in the forests near Jodhpur is abundant in trees and wildlife. The landscape around here is greener than elsewhere and the animals mainly antelopes, particularly the blackbuck and the chinkara, in these forests are not afraid of humans and are often seen near the villages eating out of the villagers’ hands. The Bishnois have indeed proved that human lives are a small price to pay to protect the wildlife and the forests around them.
Though they are staunch Hindus they often do not cremate their dead but bury them, as they are not permitted to use wood for the cremation.
There is a saying that goes “Sir santhe rooke rahe to bhi sasto jaan” this means that if a tree is saved from felling at the cost of one’s head, it should be considered as a good deed. It is for this environmental awareness and commitment that the Bishnois stand apart from other sects and communities in India.