The Bishnois, a community in the Rajasthan state in India, show it is possible for us to live in harmony with nature.
People should co-exist with Nature and connect with the land its creatures, as they represent the same universal spirit that permeates all living things. To foster the connection between Nature and humans, the Hindu seers honored the rivers and mountains as homes of deities. Most native communities of the world, be they Native Americans or Africans, live in harmony with Nature.
Yet these beliefs erode with time, with industrialization and with consequent changes in lifestyle. So these beliefs need to be re-examined and reinforced to fit in with contemporary needs.
The Bishnois, a community in Rajasthan, show it is possible for us to live in harmony with nature. Their ‘guru’ or preceptor is Jambaji, born in 1451 in one of the warrior sects of Rajasthan. His teachings are based on 29 (bish: twenty, noi: nine) principles that include ‘karuna’ or compassion for all living beings. Bishnois do not cut or lop green trees; instead they use dried cow dung as fuel. They do not cremate their dead as Hindus normally do, because it involves the use of firewood; instead, they bury them. Agriculture is the mainstay of the people; they also carve wood during the time they are not busy on their fields. The required wood comes from trees that have have fallen during storms. Each Bishnoi family creates a tank in their field to provide water for black bucks and antelopes in the arid summer months. They maintain groves for the animals to graze and birds to feed. Solar energy is used to extract underground water to irrigate the groves. The region where they live is a desert (Thar desert), and these groves help to recharge rain water in the aquifers in the desert.
Mud Fridge at Gud Bishnoi village; Credits: slarson91 at Flickr
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In this award-winning photograph by Himanshu Vyas from Hindustan Times that won IFRA Gold Award for News Photography, a Bishnoi woman is suckling a fawn.
You can see the efforts of villagers have paid off. If you visit a Bishnoi village (called Guda Bishnoi), you can find a small artificial lake, where migratory birds, blackbucks and chinkaras abound.
One of the trees you will find in the groves is Prosopis cineraria (locally called Khejari). The reason why the Khejri tree is revered is because it has immense value. The tree enriches nitrogen in the soil. The villagers mix its bark with flour for its nutritive value.
The love of Bishnois for Khejri tree is phenomenal and has an interesting history behind it. In 1730 AD, Jodhpur king, Maharaja Abhay Singh, wanted to build a palace, and his army set out to cut trees to burn lime for the construction work. They were amazed to find so many khejri trees in the midst of the arid desert.They raised the axe to cut them, only to find themselves besieged by the villagers who offered their bodies as shields for the trees. Heading the protest was a brave woman called Amrita Devi, who bravely embraced death. Her teen-aged daughters gave up their lives too. The entire community followed and rose as one and offered their heads. About 363 were killed by the axe, and the king, astounded by their courage, halted further cutting and declared the Khejarli region off limits for logging and hunting.
This incident has had far reaching consequences. Mahatma Gandhi, it is said, derived inspiration for his non-cooperation movement called ’satyagraha’ from the Khejarli massacre. Another beneficial consequence came through the ‘Chipko Movement’ (’Chipko’ means ’sticking’ or ‘hugging’). In the 1970’s, the Government was indiscriminately felling trees in the Himalayan region (’Uttarakhand’). Sunderlal Bahuguna, a Gandhian follower, banded groups of rural women who would hug the trees in an effort to prevent their chopping. The Government had to yield and abandon its deforestation activities.
Chipko Movement; Credit:Hindu
In 1996, Nihal Chand Bishnoi, a young Bishnoi, sacrificed his life for protecting wild animals. His story was documented into a film Willing to Sacrifice that won the Best Environment Film at the 5th International Festival of Films.
All this show that a band of committed people can transform society and make Governments bend.