The long arm of law has caught up with Salman Khan twenty years after the infamous blackbuck shooting case. During this time, what stood out apart from the fact that resolution of legal cases can take decades in India, is the tenacity of the local Bishnoi community, in Rajasthan, who refused to let go. So who are these Bishnois and why was this fight so important for them?
Hundreds of years before ‘environmentalism’ was even thought of as a cause worth fighting for, the villages in the Thar region of Rajasthan saw the rise of a movement that championed the cause of nature and man’s connect with it. The person behind this was Guru Jambeshwarji Maharaj (1485 – 1536 CE), popularly known as Jamboji, a contemporary of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak.
The Bishnoi movement and Jamoji’s teachings were part of the larger wave of the Bhakti movement that began in the Tamil region in the 6th-7th century and then traveled across the North from the 11th century onwards.
It is believed that Jamboji was born in 1451 CE in the village of Pipasar, now in the Jodhpur district of Rajasthan. In 1519-20 CE, Rajasthan faced a storm. It was in the grip of a terrible drought, which decimated a large part of the population and forced others to migrate. It was at this time that Jamboji had visions of a catastrophe that affected the land and the importance of nurturing nature and the environment. He moved to Samrathal Dhora, a sand dune in Barmer district of Rajasthan, where he lived for 51 years. It is here that he established the Bishnoi sect in 1485 CE, laying down the 29 founding principles of the faith. This ‘number’ over time, also defined the community. The Bishnois themselves believe that their name means the twenty niners’ (Bish -20 & noi -9) referring to Jamboji’s commandments.
Of the 29, eight of the commandments were devoted to the protection of the local ecology and kindness to animals. These included prohibition on killings of animals, cutting down on green trees, taking care of orphan animals Jamboji also forbade wearing blue clothes, as the blue dye was made by cutting down several shrubs. Apart from the close connection with the environment, the other rules Jamboji set revolved around social behavior - promoting work, honesty, cleanliness, and thrift. The remaining four were devoted to spiritual practices e.g believing God is omnipresent, need to pray twice a day, observing fasts etc It is a testimony to Jamboji’s legacy that 500 years after Jamboji’s beliefs are followed. The blackbuck is of special significance for the Bishnois as they believe it to be an incarnation of Jamboji.
In fact, the two things most sacred to the Bishnois are the Khejdi tree (Prosopis cineraria) and the Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra). Jamboji is said to have survived through the great drought by eating the leaves of the Khejdi tree, a drought-resistant tree which can survive in the aridest climate without water. Also, on his deathbed, it is believed that Jamboji said that he will come back as a blackbuck. The Bishnois still call the blackbuck ‘Baba’.
Through history, the Bishnois have fought hard for their cause. The most famous of the tales around the Bishnoi passion for the cause is the tragic Khejrali massacre. The story goes that in September 1731, Maharaja Abhay Singh of Jodhpur (1702-1749) was renovating the Meherangarh Fort in Jodhpur and needed wood. He sent a minister Girdhar Bhandari with armed men, to cut Khejdi trees from the Khejrali village nearby. A local Bishnoi woman named Amrita Devi made desperate pleas for the trees to be spared. When her pleas fell on deaf ears, she hugged a Khejdi tree to stop the felling. Angered by her defiance, Girdhar ordered the axemen to cut her in two. This was promptly carried out! As the word of her death spread to neighboring Bishnoi villages, it is said that hundreds of men and women came to save the Khejdi trees by hugging them as Amrita Devi had done. The axemen showed no mercy. In a single day, 290 men and 69 women are said to have had lost their lives. As the news reached Maharaja Abhay Singh, he ordered it to be stopped and promised that no tree will ever be cut in Bishnoi villages. Today, a memorial stands at the site where the massacre took place.
Today, there are around nine lakh Bishnois in India mostly concentrated in the western districts of Rajasthan such as Jaisalmer, Barmer, Nagaur, Bikaner, and Jodhpur. Mostly in agriculture, the Bishnois still follow the principles laid down by Jamboji. No wonder then that the Bishnoi villages are often oasis in an otherwise arid region.
It is quite unfortunate, that this community with such a rich tradition going centuries only came into the national consciousness in 1998, as a sidenote to the sensational ‘Blackbuck hunting case.’ The Bishnois were pioneers and the principles they have followed for centuries are today being seen as essentials, for man and the world to survive!
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