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Story - issue #4

Nature's Guardians

Words by Abhiroop Sen
Illustration by Amruta Patil

How far would you go to protect the environment? Members of the Bishnoi community in India are prepared to sacrifice their lives to protect the flora and fauna.

In the most arid region of north west India, live the Bishnoi: a Hindu sect, less than a million in number, who consider the Thar Desert their home. For hundreds of years the Bishnoi have stood in the way of hunters, loggers, and those they believe intend harm to the natural world. Many Bishnoi lives have been martyred defending trees and animals: they may be the earliest environmental activists and conservationists. To understand the origin of Bishnoi, we have to travel back 500 years. A severe drought in the 15th century devastated the people of the Thar region. A villager near Jodhpur, Rajhastan, known today to his followers as Shree Guru Jambeshwar, had a vision that showed him that the drought was triggered by humans as a reaction to their disruption of the natural order.

Following this epiphany, he wrote down 29 tenets for living in harmony with nature and conserving the environment. The tenets are simple guidelines for living a wholesome life in tune with the world around us. The most important tenets proscribe love and devotion of trees and animals and a commitment to protect them, but others include taking early morning baths, saying no to drinking alcohol, and avoiding unnecessary discussions. From a region known for its desolate, arid landscape, emerged the most devout custodians of nature. In the year 1730, more than 363 people of the Bishnoi community were martyred trying to halt the felling of khejri trees, ordered by the maharajah of Jodhpur, in the village of Khejarli.

The maharajah’s men faced stiff resistance from the villagers, led by a woman named Amrita Devi. She stood hugging a khejri tree, refusing to give way, even as the axe was wielded. It is believed that her last words were: “A chopped head is cheaper than a felled tree.” The legend of Amrita Devi lives on in Bishnoi culture, inspiring generations of activists, including India’s most famous environmental movement, the Chipko Andolan, which came to prominence in the 1970s. The campaigners protested government sponsored deforestation and stood hugging trees to prevent them being felled. Every year in the month of September, on the tenth day of the lunar calendar, thousands of members of the Bishnoi community gather together in Khejarli village to pay tribute to the lives that were sacrificed by Amrita Devi and her followers.

At the gathering, the community pledges anew to uphold the tradition of protecting trees and animals. The sacred khejri tree is revered and its bark, leaves, roots, and seeds find use in everyday applications to heal, provide nutrition and rejuvenate the mind and body. The community holds all animal life sacred, especially the blackbuck (an antelope with distinct spiralling horns), which is an endangered species and native of the region. Women of the Khejarli village are known to suckle orphaned blackbuck fawns. The Bishnoi’s love and care for nature is unconditional.

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