How many of us had heard about the Bishnoi community before Salman Khan made headlines for his role in the blackbuck killing case of 1998? Unfortunately, it takes a celebrity’s disgusting actions to make us aware of our natural wealth and its guardians. The term Bishnoi translates to the number 29.
29 is the number of tenets laid down by the founder of the Bishnoi sect almost 500 years ago. Of the 6 tenets that focus on protecting nature, the two most thoughtful ones are: Jeev Daya Palani–Be compassionate to all living beings and Runkh Lila Nahi Ghave– Do not cut green trees. The principles were not only tailored to conserve the biodiversity of the area but also ensured an eco-friendly social life.
Spread over the western parts of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, and Madhya Pradesh, the Bishnoi are among the world’s oldest surviving ecologist communities. Their love for nature that has not only helped them survive the droughts of the Thar Desert but has also helped the inhabitant wildlife remain safe from poachers. The Bishnoi community has been doing this long before the beautiful Black Buck was listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Bishnois were there before even the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 came into being. This proves that the need to save nature does not arise from laws but from an inherent understanding of knowing that we exist because of nature, and not the other way around.
In 1730 AD, when men from Maharaja Abhay Singh’s army started cutting down the Bishnoi’s sacred khejri (Prosopis cineraria) trees in the village of Khejarli, a woman named Amrita Devi stepped forward and claimed that cutting off her head was cheaper than felling a tree. She was decapitated, along with her three daughters who voluntarily took her place, followed by 363 other Bishnoi men, women and children who stepped forward until the massacre was finally called to the attention of the king.
Today, 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. The 1998 Black Buck shooting case was strengthened by Poonamchand Bishnoi, a local from the Bishnoi community who claimed Salman and his co-stars were on a hunting session in Bhagoda ki Dhani in Kankani village, near Jodhpur. Witnesses often turn hostile in high-profile cases where powerful people are involved. However, in this case, the eyewitness, Bishnoi, was inspired by his love for nature to not give in and pursued the case to its end.
With their captivating culture and religious-ecological rules, the Bishnois have been at the forefront of conservation for decades. There is much we can learn from this resilient community, the original environmental warriors.
While we struggle to actively contribute to environmental protection and eco-conservation, this small and modest community that has surpassed the biggest of economies by virtue of its simple approach to life.
Learn more about the Bishnois by clicking on the links below:
About the author: Aditi Patil is currently employed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change as a young professional. With a Masters in Development Studies, she has previously worked on community-conservation research projects with WWF-India, Columbia University, and the Gujarat Forest Department.