The Ancient Environmentalists
The asphalt track ran parallel to the parched brown earth that extended up to the horizon. It was late in the afternoon and the scorching desert sun had just begun to mellow. Sunil swerved the jeep and we descended into the bumpy dirt track that sauntered through the freshly harvested fields of wheat and millet which grew sparsely amidst these harsh and inhospitable conditions of the Thar desert. We stopped the car at a clearing and switched off the engine. The only sound was that of the rustle of the leaves of the rather awkward, brooding trees that stood in defiance of the sandy barrenness. Sunil said “These are Khejri trees. I will tell you about them later.”
Feeding time for the motherless fawn by the priest of the Bishnoi temple And suddenly they came. A group of four gazelles, followed by a large herd of black bucks; the slanted rays of the afternoon sun illuminating their elegant backs with a mellow backlight. From previous experience, I knew that as soon as I would take out my long telephoto lens, the herd would disappear. Sensing my hesitation, Sunil smiled. ‘Don’t worry. They will not think that you are aiming a gun at them. They roam fearlessly here, because this is the land of the Bishnois.’
The camp at Guda Bishnoi village lay about 22 km from the bustling city of Jodhpur but could well be a world away from it. The silence around was almost sepulchral. In the evening we sat sipping the strong tea made from camel’s milk, and I listened to Khemkaran Bishnoi, my host in this village camp. He was telling me the story of their community, the Bishnois. In the later part of the 15th century, this part of Western Rajasthan was hit by severe drought and famine each year and it was the custom to migrate to Malwa, a central Indian province, at the start of the summer. Legend has it that Jambeshwar, son of a local Rajput Thakur, stopped the migration by making a judicious distribution of the food grains among the people of the land. It was then, in 1485, he introduced the twenty nine principles of the Bishnoi sect (‘Bish’ means twenty and ‘Noi’ means nine). He became the Guru (the Lord) of the Bishnoi community.
‘The two most important principles were prohibition of cutting of trees and protection of wildlife around us’ – Khemkaran continued ‘and to this day a Bishnoi adheres to them until death.’
The next morning we were on our way to Khejarli village, a 12 km. drive from Guda Bishnoi. This is the holiest sanctuary of the Bishnois. In 1730, no less than 363 Bishnoi men, women and children had sacrificed their lives to protect the Khejri trees. They had protested by clinging to the trees, which the king’s men had come to cut down to provide fuel for the cement lime kilns to build the king’s palace. According to folklore, the first martyr, Amrita Devi, had said as she courted death ‘a chopped head is a cheap bargain for a felled tree’. Their sacrifice is commemorated here in Khejarli, where all the martyrs had been cremated. A large mausoleum stands beside a Khejri tree, named Amrita Taru(Amrita Tree) and a temple of Guru Jambeshwar stands guard over it.
‘why is khejri tree so important that it is the state tree of Rajasthan’? – I asked Sunil.
‘because it is the most environment friendly tree here. It remains green even in the scorching summer here, when the mercury soars over 45 degrees celcius and it is wonderful as a shade tree for the crops’ – Sunil added ‘it is still a custom among us to buy khejri saplings from this village and plant them in our homes. We share own water with the saplings for two years and then it can grow on its own. The wood makes good furniture but a Bishnoi carpenter would never cut a green tree. It would wait for the trees to die naturally.’
An early morning excursion to the temple of the Bishnois, 25 km from Jodhpur, was a journey through the desert. A small religious ceremony was to be held in the morning. The chill was palpable as dry, icy winds cut through the air and rattled my bones as soon as I got out of the car. It was 7.30 in the morning and already the havan (holy fire) was lit inside the temple. The high priest was chanting prayers and men, in their traditional white attires and women, draped in colourful sarees, were pouring pure ghee (clarified butter) and coconuts into the fire as they slowly circled it clockwise.. ‘It purifies the air and clears our passage to our Guru’, Vishudha Nand, the head priest was explaining the significance of havan as he took me towards the backside of the temple after the ceremony was over. We walked for around 300 metres and came on to a clearing. Around twenty gazelles were ambling about, picking up the grains of wheat and millet left for them by the villagers. ‘The Bishnois are supposed to share 10% of their food grains with the wildlife around them. It is one of our 29 strictures and we maintain it to preserve the balance in nature.’
A fawn walked slowly towards us and the priest called out to her - ‘Aarti’. The little antelope fearlessly trotted in. Vishudha Nand said ‘Aarti’s mother died when she was born. A Bishnoi woman adopted her, breastfeeding her with her own children until the motherless fawn could be on her own.’
I offered a couple of biscuits to Aarti. She accepted it gracefully and went on rubbing her nose on the priest’s orange robes.
Our next stop was Salawas, a predominantly Bishnoi village. Changes are afoot with traditional mud houses being replaced with modern urban architectures made of Jodhpuri stone. The young women seemed pretty comfortable as they sauntered through the village lanes dressed in the ubiquitous salwar kameez, a regular dress throughout Northern and Western India. The flashes of vibrant red and orange veils were only with the older women with elaborate nose rings extending up to their ears and heavy lockets and bangles. All of them, I was told, was pure gold.
I was taken to Jodha Ram’s house for the opium ceremony. An ancient custom among the Bishnois and still popular among the village elders, they believe that the drug has healing properties. In olden times, fights between clans were often resolved through an opium ceremony.
The ceremony was an elaborate affair with village elders, impeccably dressed in white with turbans meticulously draped around their heads, religiously took their turns. The feel was almost ritualistic, only the caustic smell of opium in its pure form was too strong.
On the way back, we briefly stopped at Guda lake, one of the many water bodies in the Bishnoi area, painstakingly made by the Bishnois by preservation of rainwater in a land known for water scarcity. It is the watering hole of the gazelles and black bucks and also home of the migratory birds in winter. A few kms later, near Khejarli village Sunil stopped the car and pointed to a large stone. ‘This is where Salman Khan had shot the two black bucks in 1998.’ I remembered the case which had received widespread media attention. Salman Khan, the Bollywood superstar had killed two black bucks. He was chased and accosted by the Bishnois and was handed over to the police. He has been sentenced to a 5 year prison term, but is still free. The pressures on the Bishnoi community to withdraw the charges have come from many quarters but to no avail. ‘How could they think that for a community whose ancestors have given so great a sacrifice to save trees would let go the killer of a deer, whom we consider part of our family? Do they know that even now, almost every year, a Bishnoi sacrifices his life trying to save wildlife from poachers and motherless fawns are regularly taken care of by our women?’
The furious tone of Sunil’s voice was very reassuring. I realized that the basic principles of the 29 strictures laid down by Guru Jambeshwar would remain safe with generation next of the Bishnoi community.
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