This month featuring two stories:
Amrita Devi Bishnoi, a brave woman from the Bishnoi community, protected khejri trees in Jodhpur, India, at the cost of her life. Today, her legacy continues to influence movements like Chipko and is honored with the Amrita Devi Bishnoi Wildlife Protection Award, highlighting the importance of preserving the khejri tree for its ecological and cultural value.
The Ents of Our Earth tells the story of how cities have grown by cutting down forests. But it also shows that people are now fighting to protect these city forests, just like the fictional Ents in the stories, to make sure they survive for our children.
Explore previous months’ editions by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.
Amrita Devi Bishnoi and the Khejri
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.
The Ents of Our Earth
“I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side,…nobody cares for the woods as I care for them…..” (Treebeard, Lord of the Rings)
Forests have historically been martyrs to human ambition. Especially cities, where human civilization flourished. In the Indian epic, Mahabharatha, the Pandavas burnt down Khandava Vana to establish the city of Indraprastha. New Delhi is said to stand where once Indraprastha flourished. The destruction of Khandava Vana may have been a mythical tale, but the forests of the ancient Aravalli Hills that have been shrinking as Delhi expanded is today’s reality. Protected forests in other metropolitan cities and the charismatic wildlife that live in them such as the leopards of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (Mumbai), the blackbuck of Guindy National Park (Chennai) or the elephants of Bannerghatta National Park (Bengaluru) have not been spared either as the cities have developed.
If national parks, with the highest protection under law are threatened, what chance do smaller urban forests stand? Gunda thopes are wooded groves that were once found across Karnataka. Many were planted during the time of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan in the 18th century. The groves were a source of timber, fuelwood, and fodder for the local villagers and a place to rest for travelers. Jackfruit, jamun, mango, Indian butter tree, tamarind and Ficus species were planted and cared for by villagers. Children clambered up fruit trees devouring raw mangoes with salt and chilli powder or on the jamun till their tongues turned purple. Shrines to village deities, nagarkallus (snake stones), and stones smeared with vermilion and turmeric were worshiped by the villagers. During festivals like Ramnavmi the entire village collected in the grove — the people feasted in the shade while the birds chattered away in the canopy above.
Today these groves are hard to find. In Bengaluru city, the groves have been converted to housing for the poor, bus stands, community halls and schools to accommodate the needs of the growing city. Sometimes a lone banyan is all that is left of a once thickly wooded grove. Other groves are in a sad state with fallen trees or dumped with garbage. Saddest of all is how these groves have disappeared from the memory of the locals.
We may never know how many groves, like gunda thopes, existed in cities across the country. Or how many more such urban forests will become martyrs to expanding cities.
But all is not lost.
The opening quote is by Treebeard, an Ent, from the fantasy novel “Lord of the Rings”. Ents are Shepherds of the Trees, protectors of the forests of Middle Earth, where the book is set. Treebeard is angry with the tree-slaying wizard Saruman, and sorrowful that no one cares for forests anymore. But like Treebeard Planet Earth too has her Ents.
There are citizen movements to protect urban forests, activists who take the battle to courts, and children demanding a future where they too can clamber up trees to taste the mango and jamun. These are the defenders of our urban forests — today’s Ents who are firmly on the side of urban forests.