The Bishnoi Way
Bishnois of western Rajasthan are known for their extraordinary efforts to conserve flora and fauna in the region. They have been valiantly fighting and even sacrificing their lives for environmental protection for centuries. Bishnoism, as some call it, is no less than an established religion, with over 600,000 followers throughout India, for whom it is a way of living. Over the years, they have formed a unique synthesis of traditional knowledge with the ongoing advancements, which has resulted in the formation of a resilient community of people who have assimilated natural conservation within their everyday life. “ Conserving nature, for Bishnois, is a message which runs into our bloodstream; nobody has to teach that to us,” says the head of a Bishnoi village, Rohicha Kalla.
Bishnoi sect emerged in medieval India, with the initial foundations laid by Lord Jambhoji. Jambhoji prescribed 29 rules ( hence comes the name ‘Bish-Noi’ meaning ’Twenty-Nine’ ) to be followed by his followers, many of which strictly advised them to live in harmony with nature. Laws were created to protect animals and forests, and responsibilities were also divided for the upkeep of sacred groves and natural resources ( such as ponds etc.). Today, the community uses different methods to fight illegal felling of trees, poaching and other environmental hazards. Young people are making efforts to educate their community to take ecological conservation beyond their religion. Youngsters are even pursuing higher studies to understand environmental laws & ecological science better. Bishnois have also formed the Bishnoi Tiger Force, which is operational in the desert jungles of western Rajasthan and is taking environmental vigilantism to the next level. The Bishnoi Tiger Force not only keeps the hunters and poachers at bay by tipping the forest officials about illegal activities but also provides professional treatment to ill or injured wild animals. Over the years, wild animals have grown to trust Bishnois. One can easily spot a blackbuck grazing in Bishnoi farmlands, without even a sight of fear or alert! Sometimes the Bishnoi women take care of the rescued calves separated from their mothers in the wild by breastfeeding them, and once the calves grow big, they are released in their natural habitat.
‘A Chopped Head is Cheaper Than A Felled Tree’
Although there are countless stories and instances where the Bishnois have taken extreme ends to protect wildlife and the environment, the sacrifice made by Amrata ( also Imrata, Imrita – locally ) Devi along with her three daughters is a tragic yet inspiring act of love and devotion towards our nature. The folklore is that the local king wanted to build a palace and required wood for the same. He sent his men to procure wood from a Bishnoi village by felling the trees. When Amrata Devi saw this, she rushed to the spot and hugged a tree to prevent the men from cutting it. However, the men did not stop, and the axe fell on her, with which she died. Before dying, she said, “ सर सान्टे रूख रहे तो भी सस्तो जाण ” meaning if a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it. Immediately after, over 360 people from nearby villages gave up their lives to protect the trees. This incident not only displayed the unwavering spirit of Bishnois to protect the environment but also inspired many other movements in times to come, including the famous Chipko Movement.
‘Colour of clothes to the death rites, everything eco-ethical’
The past few years have witnessed an escalation in sustainability trends. Sustainability as a concept itself is not older than 35 – 40 years, when it was first mentioned in the Brundtland report named our shared future. However, Bishnois, for many centuries, have been living not only sustainably but also ‘environmental-ethically.’ Although there are numerous examples to back this, let’s just consider a few here. Despite a strong association with the vibrant Rajasthani culture, Bishnois do not use the colour blue in their traditional attires. One reason is that blue dye is produced from Indigo, which is cultivated after clearing vast grasslands, which are the primary source of food for herbivores in the region. The wood used for cooking food is not procured by felling any tree. Instead, they cut overgrown branches, or they collect already fallen timber in the nearby forests. They very strongly believe that every living creature has equal importance and the right to exist and share resources. For them, the life of a monitor lizard or a vulture or a chicken is of the same value as that of an elephant or a deer or a dog. It is made sure by the community that local common resources such as a pond or a grazing grassland are shared with the wild animals as well. Elaborate arrangements are made to provide water & fodder for wild animals. The stray dogs are sterilized to prevent their increasing population from causing harm to the nearby wildlife. They have elaborate systems to harvest rainwater and to grow a variety of crops in their arid region. Bishnois often, to save trees, do not cremate their dead but rather bury them. The holy havan, a ritual burning of offerings in a wood fire, is practised regularly in Bishnoi Villages; however, in place of wood, they use coconut husk.
Upgrade not Relegate
In a semi-arid region, Bishnois have not only learned to live in perfect harmony with nature but also prospered over the centuries by amalgamating their traditional knowledge and ongoing developments to adapt eco-ethical ways of living. While in this fast-paced world, we might consider things of the past as relegated, but this time we must reflect upon the journey of this community who has been making efforts to conserve the environment for the last five centuries. Post pandemic world leaves us an opportunity to upgrade our actions against climate change from a new start. But this time, we must not forget to bring the knowledge of our indigenous grassroots communities to the forefront.