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The Bishnoi Community

by Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: August 01, 2006
Page Last Updated: October 31, 2016

India, the land of Buddha, Mahavir and Gandhi is the homeland of compassion, nonviolence and peace. This is a land where people worship plants and animals as they see divinity in all life that God has created. It is not surprising to find a community who have given up their lives to protect trees and animals. They are Bishnois (a.k.a. the Vishnoi community).

Bishnois originally hailing from Thar, Rajasthan are scattered in the states of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and the metro cities of Mumbai and Delhi. But they are concentrated in smaller villages of Rajasthan. They are followers of Jambeshwar or Jamboji, a saint and seer who lived between 1452 to 1537 CE. He was born in the Peepasar village of Nagore district of Rajasthan and spent his last years in Mukham in Bikaner district. Both places have temples dedicated to his memory.

There was a dreadful drought in these parts in 1476 CE. The area suffered loss of forest and animal life. People migrated to adjoining states. But Jamboji stayed on, working for the welfare of the less fortunate ones. He preached planting of trees when conditions improved. Along with devotion to God, and compassion to fellow animals, protection of nature figured in his teachings, which led to symbiosis with nature. Water-management received priority. There are no idols for Bishnois. Instead they nurture and love trees. Respect for flora and fauna received priority. The 29 tenets (Bish = twenty, noi=nine) earned the name of Bishnois for the followers of Jamboji.

Bishnoi settlements are like oasis in Thar, the desert area of Rajasthan with green-belts, birds, bucks and chinkaras which roam about fearlessly.

Traditionally rainwater was collected carefully in underground wells, at times well protected under lock and key. Nowadays, The Indira Gandhi Canal has changed the face of this arid area and there is greenery in plenty.

Khejarli Heros

In 1730 CE, Maharaja Abhayasingh of Jodhpur needed wood in great quantity to build a fortress and demanded wood or money from his subjects. The Bishnoi community did not obey him. He sent soldiers to their settlements to cut down the Khejari trees which grew in the area.

The first village they reached was Khejarli (abode of Khejari trees). There lived a courageous and dedicated lady by name Amrita who nurtured Khejari trees as her children. When the soldiers applied the axe, she came, pleaded to save the tree and failing which she hugged the tree. The soldiers be headed her and continued cutting. Amrita's last words were "A chopped head is cheaper than a felled tree", became a mission with the survivors. Her daughters and other villagers followed her and died in protecting trees and 363 people perished during this ruthless and cruel onslaught.

When the Maharaja came to know about the ghastly massacre, he rushed to the village and apologized. He promised to respect the conviction of Bishnois for ever. He forbade hunting and wood-cutting by means of law which is holds good even today in that area.

In memory of the 363 Bishnois, who died protecting their dear trees, a number of Khejarlis (acacias) are planted around the area. Khejarli village has beautiful groves where birds sing and blackbucks and chinkaras (gazelles) move about fearlessly.

The recent resentment of Bishnois over killing of blackbucks by an actor and his fun-loving party could be appreciated against this background. Bishnois are an exemplary community in environment protection not only in India, but for the whole of  environment-destroying mankind.

See Also:

  • Vegetarianism in India
  • Organic Living -- The author illustrates how elements of Indian culture use natural products for living, décor, and rituals.

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