Today, most people know the Bishnoi as the community who successfully filed a case against the actor Salman Khan for hunting blackbucks (which are protected animals). However, there is more to their environmental actions than this one case.
The Bishnoi community get their name from the 29 (bees-nau) rules that their spiritual leader, Guru Jambeshwar, set down around the 1500s. Some of these rules specifically instruct followers to look after animals, trees and other organisms. Therefore, protection of nature has always been an important part of Bishnoi culture. One of the most famous Bishnoi is in fact a lady called Amrita Devi, who lived in Jodhpur around the 1700s. The then Maharaja of Jodhpur, Abhay Singh, wanted to build a new palace for which he required wood. He sent his soldiers to Amrita Devi’s village to cut down some khejri trees. However, she fearlessly ran ahead of them and hugged one of the trees to protect it from the soldiers’ axe. When they threatened to kill her for opposing the Maharaja’s wishes, she told the soldiers that she was even prepared to give up her life to protect the tree because as a Bishnoi, it was her duty to protect it. Soon others in the village also followed her actions and the soldiers began killing them. It is believed that 363 people sacrificed their lives to protect the khejri trees before the Maharaja regretted his decision and called the soldiers back.
Amrita Devi’s actions continue to inspire many different people. For example, her village became known as ‘Khejarli’ (after the trees) and every year in September, the Bishnoi community still gathers here to remember her and the other protestors. In the 1970s, the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand was inspired by these conservation martyrs. In 2001, a national award (the Amrita Devi Bishnoi Wildlife Protection Award) was created in her honour, to recognize people who had contributed to environmental conservation.
The khejri is considered an important species in western India as well as many parts of west Asia because it grows well in hot, arid regions and it is useful to both, people and animals. For example, the unripe pods are used to make kair-sangri sabzi which is an important part of any Rajasthani thaali, the bark is eaten by people during famines and it can also be used to treat skin diseases, the roots fix nitrogen and this helps farmers by restoring soil fertility, and the leaves are good fodder for cows and goats.
About the author:
Madhuri Ramesh is a part of School of Development at the Azim Premji University.