Try to name a widely practiced faith or religion
that is built on the holism of nature. Not a religion that also
emphasises concern for nature; there are many. But one that is wholly
and solely devoted to nature, and to conservation as the pivot of
You will find one, -not in the bucolic splendour of some
green valley, where nature may seduce you to love her- , but in the arid,
desolation of north-western India where nature requires a struggle by man
to even survive. In this unlikely region will you find those
nature-lovers, the Bishnoi folk!
For over half a millennium, the Bishnois have evolved
their life-style into a religion that fiercely protects the environment.
It is not a religion that has a heritage of myths, miracles, a book,
ornate temples or priests. The Bishnois, estimated to be around 6 million,
spread over Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh,
are a practical, wise people who hold lessons for everyone.
Founder Jambaji born in 1451, cleverly packaged a set of
29 rules by which his followers must live. He was born in Nagaur,
Rajasthan, in a Rajput clan, given to warring and conquests. He saw
poverty and social discord. Convinced that man can succeed only by taking
care of nature, and not by coveting the fruits of another man's labours,
Jambaji walked the barren wilds of Rajasthan, showing how man can live in
peace even in those lands, provided he cared.
Never cut a green tree, but wait for a tree to age and
die and then use it as timber. Bury your dead simply, so that the earth
assimilates the flesh - and you save too, the wood needed for a
casket or a cremation. Practice cleanliness and a high level of hygiene,
for these will guard you from disease. Protect wildlife - they too play a
role in maintaining soil fertility and in holding the balance of harmful
and beneficial life forms. Conserve water for use by man and animals, by
building tanks everywhere. Of course, practice vegetarianism and be
addicted to nothing - alcohol, tobacco or even tea! Do not expect or seek,
alms or subsidy, from king or government; believe in self-help! Let women,
those founts of life, wear bright clothes of red or orange and the men
white, as a symbol of undiluted devotion to the faith. If ever you must
choose to be violent, may it be in defense of a tree, an animal or your
convictions; for this, even embrace death with cheer.
Such was Jambaji's list of rules to live by, totaling 29
in all. From that number 20 [bis] plus 9 [no], comes the name of the
religion. You can hardly find a more secular creed than that! And the
Bishnois have been true to their master's wishes. You can see them, living
their values, in several villages near Jodhpur. The mud floors are
plastered with cow dung to keep vermin away. The interiors are airy and
clean. Men, women and children exude robust good health. There is a
granary to guard their rations, and a sump for stored water . There is an easy
paced dignity to life here.
Throughout their long history, they have shown their
readiness to die for their beliefs. The most celebrated episode took place
as recently as 1730 in the village of Kejarli, near Jodhpur. The land
around this village was, as it is today, makes for a pitiless landscape. Scant
rainfall allows but four months of farming. People share the grains they
raise with animals in need. Central to their lives is the kejri tree [prosopis
cineraria], which is almost the only tree that rises to some height,
yielding shade, fodder and ultimately some timber. Gazelles and black-buck
roam with abandon, confident that the folks all around are the loving
kind. Peacocks amble with leisure.
Defiance and devotion.
To this scene, in 1730, the ruler Raja Abhaya Singh sent
his soldiers to fell trees for the fort he was building. He needed fuel
for his limestone kiln. Amrita Devi, stood in the way. She explained to
the soldiers the importance of trees to their faith and survival. Then she
argued. A crowd soon gathered and joined her in dissuading the soldiers.
When everything failed and the loggers began their preparations, Amrita
Devi hugged a tree and asked them to cut her before they cut the tree! And
lo, it was done! A shocked and outraged crowd, was roused to action. One by
one, they followed Amrita Devi, hugged a tree, dared the king's men and
were cut dead. The carnage continued; an unending line of Bishnois
choosing to die for their love of trees and nature. When a bewildered
king finally arrived at the scene and stopped his men, 363 lay dead.
Silence enveloped the moment with eloquence. There is probably no parallel
to this, in the history of conservation.
Today, in Kejarli there is an eerily silent orchard and a
small temple in it, to commemorate the day those 363 Bishnois engraved a
message in the conscience of mankind.
Inspiration to others.
And all of India too, seems to be continually inspired by
the Bishnoi martyrs . Some believe Mahatma Gandhi, himself hailing from near these parts, realised how simple folk
were ready to offer resistance and even court death, when they believed
strongly in something. And how all authority and power must quake in the
face of such resistance. His civil disobedience and satyagraha
ideas, as means to fight the British, may have drawn on Kejarli. More recently,
Sundarlal Bahuguna of Garhwal, UP borrowed from the Bishnois to fashion
his tree protection programme, called the 'chipko'. Chipko means, 'cling
The saga of Kejarli is neither the first, nor the last
example of Bishnois roused to action in defense of nature. The 1600s too
has records of Bishnoi men, women and children dying for their cause. More
recently, in 1998 a current cinema star, Salman Khan experienced the
Bishnoi storm. This man, who almost proves the axiom that a good
looking actor must also be brainless, was in a Jodhpur hotel in connection
with a film. A local hanger-on suggested a 'hunt'. Our hero's masculinity
was roused, but within the bound's of his inherent cowardliness; he chose
the dark night, and as simple farmers slept everywhere in their huts, this
lout entered Bishnoi country, took aim at a trusting
black-buck, and pulled the trigger. Within seconds of the gun shot,
Bishnois were spilling out of their beds like minutemen. The hero panicked
and bolted in his jeep. But by then, a Bishnoi had identified it as belonging to a
tour operator he knew. An army of Bishnois marched to Jodhpur next day,
tracked down the vehicle, followed the trail and laid siege to the hotel where
Salman Khan stayed. The police and the government, astonished at the speed
and ferocity of the Bishnoi reaction, swung into action and registered a
case. It is another story that the case drags on. And, it would have been
yet another story again, had the Bishnois caught hold of the actor; they
would have lynched this vacuous prince charming without mercy.
Such are the Bishnois! So gentle that that their women
are known to suckle orphaned baby-deer, and yet fearless of blood-letting
if it came to defending their faith!
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