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The Bishnoi:
India's First Environmentalists

 
 

In 1485, the Bishnoi tradition was born in the hands of Guru Jambeshwar, a Rajput chieftain of Marwar, in western Rajasthan. He formulated 29 commandments, which a Bishnoi is expected to follow until death. Of these, six are extraordinary – they cover environmental protection and compassion for all living creatures. The Bishnoi are commanded to provide shelter for abandoned animals and prohibited to cut down trees; they follow a system of sharing resources with the wildlife around them.

If this ancient religious creed — which is, at its core, environmentalism — is surprising enough, the way the Bishnoi have adhered to the principles is no less so. For centuries, they have lived and died for them. In 1730, in the remote village of Khejarli in western Rajasthan, 363 Bishnoi men, women, and children sacrificed their lives trying to protect hundreds of Khejri trees that the king’s men had come to cut down to fuel the cement lime kilns for the king’s palace. The ancient creed has translated into modern activism. The Bishnoi fiercely protect the endangered wildlife that lives around them and every year a few of them lose their lives to poachers. In 1998, they chased down and caught Salman Khan, the Bollywood superstar who had killed a couple of blackbucks in the dead of the night. The cine idol has been sentenced to five years imprisonment, courtesy of the relentless agitation of the Bishnois in the face of fierce opposition from different influential quarters.

More recently, the Bishnoi have led a movement against a nuclear power plant in Haryana. The site is a critical natural habitat for blackbucks and the Bishnoi have been demanding an adequate conservation plan for wildlife. They intend to carry on as environmental vigilantes, a role they have played for more than five centuries.

Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer based in Calcutta. His works have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera, National Geographic Traveler, Harper Collins and Yale University Journal. His coffee table book on Ladakh has been published from Delhi in 2013. Some of his visuals and stories can be found at sugatomukherjee.zenfolio.com 

The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
Of the 29 principles formulated by Guru Jambeshwar in the latter part of 15th century, the six that cover environmental protection and compassion for all living creatures are extraordinary.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
In harsh desert conditions with sparse vegetation, the Bishnoi grow wheat, millet, and chillies. They religiously follow the principle of sharing 10 percent of food grains with wildlife.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
A large mausoleum in Khejarli village is dedicated to 363 martyrs – men, women and children. They sacrificed their lives trying to protect the Khejri trees, a hardy flowering tree, from the axes of the king’s men.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
The Bishnoi are traditional people. The elderly women wear their elaborate jewelery, all of pure gold, even as they go about their daily chores.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
One of the important Bishnoi principles is Havan – lighting the holy fire that, according to Bishnoi belief, purifies the air and clears the passage to their guru.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
The Bishnoi men, in sharp contrast to the women, traditionally dress in white. However, their meticulously kept turbans are multicolored and indicate social position.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
A traditional Bishnoi kitchen. They use wood only from dead trees as fuel and also for carpentry.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
Migratory birds in Guda lake near Jodhpur. The lake was made by the Bishnois through painstaking preservation of rainwater in this desert region.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
Two blackbuck antelopes, an endangered species that the Bishnoi fiercely protect. In 1998, Salman Khan, the Bollywood superstar, had killed a couple blackbucks near Khejarli village. He was caught by Bishnoi villagers and handed over to the police. Khan has been sentenced to 5 years imprisonment in a recent court judgment.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
The Bishnoi protesting a proposed nuclear power project in Haryana. The site is a natural critical habitat for blackbucks and quite a few of the antelopes have died due to metal fencing around the area.
Image Credit: Vinod Karwasra Bishnoi
The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
A few years ago, the Bishnoi staged a hunger strike at Fatehabad in Haryana against the laying of foundation for the power project. They demand an adequate conservation program for the endangered wildlife of the region and are continuing their protests.
Image Credit: Vinod Karwasra Bishnoi
The Bishnoi: India's First Environmentalists
A Bishnoi village headman in his traditional turban. The headgear is indicative of social position; community chiefs are also expected to sport an elaborate moustache.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
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