The female nilgai stood a few feet away, friendly and curious, her thickly lashed eyes concentrating, nose sniffing, striped ears flaring, intensely aware of us in our jeep parked on the open scrubland. Her gaze had the buzz of recognition, intimacy and trust. As we drove away on our Bishnoi village tour, she continued staring after us, testament to the centuries of rapport that the Bishnoi community has built with the land and its inhabitants.
In the year with the hottest first quarter in recorded history, in a country that is rapidly losing forest cover, this 500-year-old north Indian community is more relevant than ever. Currently spread over the western parts of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, the Bishnoi are among the world’s oldest surviving ecologist communities. Their religion, propounded by sage Jambeshwar or Jamboji, born in 1451 AD, is tied to the ecology, blossoming a fierce love for Nature that has helped them survive the droughts of the Thar desert. It has also propelled their pivotal role in safeguarding wildlife from poachers, including high-profile cases like the 1998 case against Salman Khan for hunting their sacred blackbuck. My guide, Pushpendra Singh, who drove a well-oiled vintage jeep and was a frequent visitor at the nearby roadside shrine of “motorcycle baba” Om Bana, said that the villagers had recently taken to sleeping out in the fields to deter hunters.
It all began with an apocalyptic vision that Jamboji had of people destroying nature, sparking him to found a community in 1485 AD that could live in harmony with the environment, or risk their own survival. Nearly a decade ago, a severe drought had hit western Rajasthan, resulting in severe food and water scarcity that led people to rampantly cut down forests to sell wood, widely hunt the local game, and eventually migrate. Jamboji’s community is named after the 29 principles (“Bish” means 20, “Noi” is 9 in Rajasthani) that he set down. Every aspect of a Bishnoi’s life is shaped by these guidelines, ranging from hygiene (“Take a bath every morning”) to a clean conscience (“Don’t lie”) to a holistic world-view (“Show compassion for all living beings”). Their reverence for life extends to even checking that there are no insects in the kindling and the water that they consume.
A rule like “Don’t fell green trees” has helped check soil erosion, and is part of their conservation practices that include maintaining water cisterns and avoiding overgrazing. The ban on chopping trees has far-reaching effects on the community life, as the Bishnoi choose to bury their dead rather than consume a large quantity of wood for the traditional Hindu cremation. That single rule also catalysed one of the community’s most powerful stories. In 1730 AD, when men from Maharaja Abhay Singh’s army started felling the Bishnoi’s sacred khejri trees in the village of Khejadali (or Khejarli), a woman named Amrita Devi stepped forward saying that cutting off her head was cheaper than felling a tree. She was decapitated, as were her three daughters who voluntarily took her place, followed by 359 other Bishnoi men, women and children who stepped forward until the massacre was finally called to the attention of the king. Out in the real world, her memory lives on in the Indian government’s Amrita Devi Bishnoi Wildlife Protection Award, the first of which was posthumously presented in 2001 to a Bishnoi youth killed by poachers. Forest Martyrs’ Day is marked annually on September 11, the day of the Khejarli massacre.
Amri, matriarch of the Bishnoi home that we visit, is a limber, 70-year-old woman with skin wrinkled like paper, gorgeous jewellery from her head to her toes and a joyful, open-hearted manner. Her red garb is vibrant against the all-white attire of her husband and son. The large, well-swept courtyard is alive with the whirr and chirrup of sparrows. They have a government-built house of cement where her family of 12 sleeps, and also the traditional circular hut made of mud and cow-dung with a meshed roof of fallen branches, now used to grind flour, store millet and spin cotton thread on the charkha.
Their lifestyle is an intriguing blend of traditions and modern practices. The girls are watching an old Bollywood film on the telly – if it had been a regular school day, the kids would have made the 2km-walk to the Bishnoi school nearby. Cows tethered in a large, breezy shed provide milk consumed at home and sold to milk suppliers. There’s an indoor kitchen for rainy days when they can’t use their open-air stove, which runs not on gas but cow dung, dead wood and shrubs. On the wall of the indoor kitchen are red handprints, marks in remembrance of Amrita Devi.
There are several Bishnoi village tours that operate to the villages near Jodhpur. My half-day tour also introduced me to the Bishnoi homes, both Muslim, of a block-printer and a potter – watch the video above. Day-long tours often include wildlife sightings at Guda Bishnoi village, and a stop at Khejadali, the potter community of Kakani, and the weaver community of Salawas. The tour isn’t without its touristy moments, not least of which is the turban-tying demonstration – which never fails to impress me because it’s all neatly folded in without so much as a mirror.
I also partake of the opium ceremony for occasions like welcoming guests. The use of opium is frowned upon by some Bishnois and embraced by others, and it is made and consumed in a variety of ways. The clear and watery liquid that is poured in my right palm is, I am sure, diluted for my benefit, and rather sweet – nothing like the potent but bitter brown dots served to one of my friends who had chanced upon a Bishnoi village.
My time with the Bishnoi was only a few hours snatched from a gorgeous weekend at the Jodhpur Flamenco Gypsy Festival, but their warmth, simplicity and earthiness followed me home. As travellers, we know we can make Earth-friendly choices on our journeys, encourage eco-friendly resorts and reconnect with our primal selves in rainforests, oceans and mountaintops. That preference is still a world away from the Bishnoi’s naked commitment to the planet, placing its well-being above all. Their lifestyle is of course a practical safeguard against a harsh environment but it is powered by a fierce love and belief that we are all on sacred ground.