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The Bishnois, India’s original environmentalists, who inspired the Chipko movement


The Bishnois may be considered as India’s first environmentalists. The famous ‘Chipko Movement’ was inspired by the true story of Amrita Devi Bishnoi, who refused to let the king’s men cut trees in her village. Her head was severed. More than 300 people who did the same were killed for trying to protect the trees.

Ishrath Humairah, TreeSouls

One fine morning, India woke up to the news of famous Bollywood stars involved in killing of the Black Buck and the Chinkara. With this news, the nation not only came to know about the two unique endangered animals but also about the protagonists for nature – the Bishnois.

If not for the Bishnois and their reverence for nature, this incident would have never made it to the headlines. The nation took notice of this erstwhile peace loving tribal community that challenged the reigning stars and ensured that they were thrown behind the bars.

The Bishnois are considered as the first environmentalists of India. They are born nature lovers. They have, for centuries, married eco-conservation with their faith, making it one of the most ecologically relevant orders of today. Reverence for nature and all forms of life is what makes them a true ‘BISHNOI’.

A Bishnoi woman breastfeeding a young buck along with her child

Bishnoism is said to have started in 1485AD by Saint Guru Jambheshwar in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, India. Long before the world came to know about the environmental crises, Bishnois have been cognizant of man’s relationship with nature and the importance to maintain its delicate balance. It is remarkable that these issues were thought about, half a century ago by Bishnoi visionaries. No other religious order has given this level of importance to environment value, protection and care.

Not many people know that the concept of Tree Huggers and Tree-Hugging, have roots in the Bishnoi history. The famous ‘Chipko Movement’ was inspired by a true story of a brave lady called Amrita Devi Bishnoi who refused to let the kingsmen cut the trees. Her head was severed. Seeing their mother lay down her life for the trees, her daughters clung to them. Their heads were severed too. Agitated by the happenings, the neighboring village folk clung to the trees, as the massacre continued. More than 300 people were killed for non-obeisance and for trying to protect the trees. When the king came to know of this, he was ashamed of his mistake. He apologized to the Bishnoi community, ordered to stop felling the trees and hunting of wild animals in Bishnoi areas and punished those who transgressed his orders. This sacrifice not only inspired the “Chipco Andoloan” by Sunder Lal Bahuguna but also the Government of India in the form of “Amrita Devi Bishnoi Smrithi Paryavaran Award” for contributing to environment conservation.

The Bishnois are one of the first organized proponents of eco-conservation, wildlife protection, and green living. With their ideals steeped in basic 29 religious tenets, the Bishnois and Bishnoism are very relevant to our evolving world.

To unite people on a common platform, Guru Jambheswar Ji advised 29 principles to become a Bishnoi. The word ‘Bishnoi’ stands for BISH (which means 20) and NOI (mean 9) derived from these 29 principles out of which 6 principles are dedicated to environmental protection and compassion for all living beings.

Of the 6 tenets that focus on protecting nature, the two most profound ones are:

Jeev Daya Palani – Be compassionate to all living beings.

Runkh Lila Nahi Ghave – Do not cut green trees.

Though these rules have been made centuries back, they still hold good and are more than relevant to the environmental problems faced in today’s world.

Bishnoism is the most practical and do-able order that lays emphasis on protecting the gifts of God – the nature. Since the religion is based on love, peace, respect for life and non-violence, it proponents harmony amongst trees, animals and human beings – a perfect ecosystem.

The Bishnois are rightfully called the first environmentalists of India. They have given more to nature in comparison to what the entire country would have contributed so far. In spite of living in the arid desert regions for centuries they have been following the dictates of their religious principles. A cursory look at their lifestyle is a very humbling experience.

  • Bishnois do not cut green trees and are compassionate to all living beings.
  • The Bishnoi settlements are made from material gathered locally and most eco-friendly measures are taken to build their abode.
  • They do not fell trees. They only collect dead wood. Even a carpenter waits patiently for the tree to fall.
  • Deers, Black Bucks, Peacocks, Blue Bulls, Chinkaras, are some of the animals that you would find roaming around their settlements. Because of Bishnois and their commitment to protection of nature, many animals have survived this long. Nowhere else would one find a perfect marriage of all forms of flora and fauna.
  • Long before Rain Harvesting concept caught fire, to combat the severe drought and water shortage, the Bishnois build water storage tanks that can collect and store rain water. This water is not only for humans but animals too.
  • Bishnois oppose to their religious tradition of cremating the dead. To avoid wastage of firewood, they bury the deceased.
  • Though a religious sect, the Bishnois do not believe in unnecessary rituals, idol-worship, caste system, etc., but continually lay emphasis on compassion, love, and peace, thereby firming their foundation for love for Mother Nature.
  • To minimize the use of green trees, they use cow dung cakes as fuel for cooking.
  • One of their principle tenets “Amar Rakhave That” – means to provide shelter for abandoned animals so that they can live the rest of their life with dignity.

 

There are many more such humbling facts and practices of the Bishnoi way of life. We are forced to stop here and give it a serious thought. A tribal settlement, living in harsh conditions, struggling to make a living, would still want to protect and preserve the resources that could have been exploited as a key to their prosperity. The Bishnoi community is a standing testimony of fanatical fervor for life.

While India is trying hard to educate the masses on environmental protection and eco conservation, this small and modest community that has surpassed the biggest of economies by virtue of it simple approach to life.

The Bishnois do not tolerate destruction of flora and fauna by unnatural means. They are very protective of their surroundings and are known to be violent in course of its protection. There is a saying that if you are a hunter, the worst thing that can happen to be caught by a Bishnoi while on Shikhar. With law and order coming to force, the Bishnois are not sparing any threat to the environment. They have been fighting court cases, poachers, and any threat to the environment they cherish.

If not for the Bishnois, the Black Buck and Chinkara, which come under Section 9 of the Wildlife Protection Act, supposedly getting the highest degree of protection by the state, would have had vanished like other species,. Salman Khan or Mansur Ali Khan of Pataudi – the Bishnois spare nobody.

It is heart-warming to notice that the younger generation of Bishnois is slowly taking over the reigns of protecting the Earth in their own ways. We are optimistic that this new generation, armed with increased environmental consciousness and mass support for eco conservation will be successful in preserving the priceless treasures of this world.

Amen!


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Guru Jambheshwar (b. 1451) is the founder of the Bishnoi community. Before his death, he had laid down 29 principles to be followed by the sect. Killing animals and felling trees were banned. Before his death he has stated that the black buck was his manifestation after death and should be conserved.

Bishnois – The fierce custodians of nature
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One of the worst things to happen to a hunter is to be caughtt by the Bishnois. “Once, an Indian Air Force captain was caught hunting. We stripped and forced him to lie down in the hort sand in the middle of summer. He’d never dream of hunting again,” says Bana Ram of Guda. This ruthless protection of animals is part of Bishnoi culture.

Khejri, the tree that inspired Chipko movement, is dying a slow death
Namit Hans, The Indian Express
In 1730 AD, a small village located 26 km south-east of Jodhpur in Rajasthan witnessed probably the first and most fierce environment protection movement in the history of the country. Amrita Devi of Khejarli village and her three young daughters laid down their lives to protect the sacred trees which the ruler of Marwar Maharaja Abhay Singh had ordered to be cut down for building his new palace. The ‘martyrs’ belonged to Bishnoi community and the trees which they were protecting were ‘Khejri’. In 1970s, this sacrifice became the inspiration behind the Chipko Movement. However, two centuries on, the story has a twist. In 2015, the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) took out a report which stated that the number of Khejri trees per hectare in the 12 dry districts of Rajasthan had dropped to less than 35 per cent.

 

 

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2 Responses “The Bishnois, India’s original environmentalists, who inspired the Chipko movement”

  1. Ashwini
    26th March 2018 at 11:26 pm

    India is blessed with “Bishnoi” community who cares for our nature and ecosystem.

    They started way back….when are we starting?
    We “literate” people should also understand how important is to save our nature.

    Lets pledge to save our ecosystem….!

  2. Ashwini
    26th March 2018 at 11:32 pm

    The picture “A Bishnoi woman breastfeeding a young buck along with her child” itself says how lovely these people are !

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