“Losing your head is better than losing a tree,” is an old saying among India’s indigenous Bishnoi community. The Bishnois, considered to be the world’s earliest environmentalists, still follow this tenet of their religion. Despite their green ways of life, today they find it tough to escape the modern day troubles of environmental degradation.
The Bishnois live mostly in western India’s Rajasthan state. You can hear more about their way of life and present day struggles on this week’s show.
Guru Jambeshwar, a 15th century Bishnoi leader, prescribed 29 rules for his followers. Among them, he advocated respect towards nature and all living beings. And that’s why the Bishnois don’t cut down green trees or kill any animals.
“Our religious leader said that there is life in the trees. Now the whole world is realising the worth of his teaching. Now they say don’t cut the trees otherwise the whole world will come to an end,” says Faglu Ramji, a leader of the Bishnoi community in Jodhpur.
Khejarlee, a forest belt in the desert region of Rajasthan, is a religious spot of great importance for the Bishnois. It is here that 363 Bishnois sacrificed their lives to save trees. Shivdas Shastri, a priest here, says the historical event plays a huge role in keeping the community dedicated toward environmental conservation.
“Two centuries ago, the King ordered many trees in this forest to be chopped down to build a fort. When the King’s men came forward to cut the trees, the Bishnoi villagers from nearby protested. They said, ‘We will die, but we won’t let you cut the trees’,” Shastri says.
But the fight for the environment has never been so tough for the Bishnois. Today, Bishnoi farmers in villages around Jodhpur are facing the risk of losing their livelihoods. Balaram Bishnoi, a farmer in Doli village, says industrial wastes from nearby textile units have ruined his land.
He says, “There’s no growth anymore – the land is without life now. I used to grow legumes, grains and sesame – everything. Now nothing can grow here, not even grass. The land has gone totally barren.” Balaram and other farmers from the villages around the area have filed a case against the polluting industries and are awaiting justice.
The Bishnois, with their conservative beliefs, are fighting an unequal battle. On many fronts they aren’t well-equipped to survive modern day competition. “People have gone ahead. We have always held strong to our beliefs and that’s why we’ve fallen behind in terms of progress, I can tell you that,” says Faglu Ramji.
He recounts how his father didn’t take up a job in Indian Army because his grandfather objected it. The job would have required breaching some codes of the Bishnoi faith like eating non-vegetarian food or committing violent acts.
“We always wonder if our father had been in the army, would we have got jobs in the army too? Or been in better financial positions? Because of our conservative religion, our economic and social progress has been weak,” says Faglu Ramji.