It was late in the afternoon and the desert sun had just begun to mellow. Sunil swerved the jeep and we descended onto a bumpy dirt track through the fields of wheat and millet that grew sparsely here in the Thar Desert. We stopped the car in a clearing and switched off the engine.
And suddenly they came. A group of four gazelles, followed by a large herd of blackbuck antelope, the afternoon sun glancing off their elegant backs. From previous experience, I knew that if I took out my long telephoto lens, the herd would scatter. Sensing my hesitation, Sunil smiled. “Don’t worry. They will not think that you are aiming a gun at them. They roam fearlessly here, because this is the land of the Bishnois.”
The camp at Guda Bishnoi village lies only 22 km from the bustling city of Jodhpur, but the silence there is almost sepulchral. In the evening we sat sipping the strong tea made from camel’s milk, and I listened to Khemkaran Bishnoi, my host in this village camp. He was telling me the story of their community, the Bishnois. In the later part of the 15th century, this part of Western Rajasthan was hit by severe drought and famine each year and it was the custom to migrate to Malwa, a central Indian province, at the start of the summer. Legend has it that Jambeshwar, son of a local Rajput thakur (chieftain), stopped the migration by devising a clever rationing program for his people. It was then, in 1485, he introduced the twenty-nine principles of the Bishnoi sect (“Bish” means twenty and “Noi” means nine). Thus the Bishnoi tradition was born.
Those same 29 principles are still followed (mostly) by the Bishnoi today. Some of the principles are not unusual: take daily baths, pray in the morning and the evening. Some are practical: don’t steal, smoke, drink or use drugs (with, strangely enough, a seemingly wide loophole that allows opium ceremonies). Some would seem chauvinist to the modern ear: segregate menstruating women and those who have just delivered children. Others, just strange: don’t use the violet blue color from the indigo plant. But the six principles that cover environmental protection and compassion for all living creatures are extraordinary. It goes far beyond prohibiting meat (though it includes that). Rather, the Bishnoi are commanded to provide shelter for abandoned animals and to be merciful to all beings. It is likewise forbidden to castrate bulls or cut down trees. It’s an ancient religious creed, but it is, at its core, environmentalism.
This ancient creed has translated into modern activism: this month, the Bishnoi launched a hunger strike in protest of a proposed nuclear power plant site in Fatehabad in the north Indian state of Haryana. The site is home to endangered wildlife like blackbucks and blue bulls, some of whom have already been dying due to the new metal fencing around the area. The strike will continue, says activist Vinod Karwasra Bishnoi, even though reversing the project plan would be, as he put it, a ‘herculean task’.
Wildlife in Bishnoi fields near the Fatehabad site. Photo courtesy Vinod Kumar Karwasra.
The next morning we were on our way to Khejarli village, a 12km drive from Guda Bishnoi. This is the holiest sanctuary of the Bishnois, named after the Khejri tree, a hardy flowering tree that grows in the desert. These trees, as all others, were beloved by the Bishnoi, and in 1730, when a king sent his men to cut the Khejri trees down to fuel the cement lime kilns to build his palace, the Bishnoi resisted. They clung to the trees even as the king’s men began slaughtering them; according to folklore, the first martyr, Amrita Devi, said “a chopped head is a cheap bargain for a felled tree” before she died. In all, 363 men, women and children were killed, and their sacrifice is commemorated here: A large mausoleum stands beside a Khejri tree, named the Amrita tree, in honor of its protector. A temple of Guru Jambeshwar stands guard over it.
Sunil stood admiring the tree with me. “It is still a custom among us to buy khejri saplings from this village and plant them in our homes,” he said. “We share our own water with the saplings for two years and then it can grow on its own. The wood makes good furniture but a Bishnoi carpenter would never cut a green tree. It would wait for the trees to die naturally.”