Have you ever heard of the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan, India? Well, to be honest, if you had asked me some while ago who are the Bishnois of Rajasthan or why Bishnois of Rajasthan are famous, for sure I wouldn’t have known.
So I figured it was high time to learn more about them, as their story sounded fascinating. And also because they originate from Rajasthan, one of our favorite places in India.
The Bishnoi community of Rajasthan hides a captivating culture, with a religion combining religious rules with ecological ones. The Bishnoi religion is one based on care towards nature. And as you will see, it’s no wonder that the Bishnois are also called tree-huggers.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I hereby present you the Bishnoi people and 11 interesting facts about them!
So who are the Bishnois?
- The Bishnois are a community in India living mostly in the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. They are renowned for adapting to the harsh conditions of the Thar Desert. As such, they are a perfect example for showing that the biodiversity of Rajasthan’s arid desert can be preserved not by isolating people, but through their active participation.
You are very likely to find Bishnois in Rajasthan as the Bishnoi population in Rajasthan is around 640,000, making it the state with the largest number of their people. There are even travel agencies that organize special trips for tourists in their villages. You should carefully research the tour operator that you choose as there are some that will not provide any particular insight into the Bishnoi culture, but rather take you to various places for shopping.
- The spiritual leader of the Bishnois is Guru Jambheshwar (born in 1451). At the age of 34, he had a strong vision. He saw how people were destroying the environment. As a result, he decided that it was time for a change. It was time people understood that they needed to protect the environment. And so the Bishnoi tribe culture became intertwined with the respect towards nature.
- The Bishnoi leader, Guru Jambheshwar is considered an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. However, it is interesting to notice that in the Bishnoi tradition there are neither idols nor statues of gods in the temples. On the other hand, Hindu temples are full of them. Furthermore, even though one might characterize them as the Bishnoi caste, they do not believe in the traditional caste system.
- The meaning of Bishnoi is the people of the 29 rules (Bish = 20, Noi = 9). The Bishnoi history and religion are based on the 29 rules as told by Guru Jambheshwar.
Which are the Bishnois’ religious precepts?
- The Bishnoi 29 rules are divided into:
◊ Rules about protecting the animals and the trees (these include the interdiction of killing animals, protecting any type of life and the interdiction of cutting trees). And the Bishnois of Rajasthan are famous for protection of nature and the wildlife;
◊ Rules about social behavior – amongst others, the Bishnois have to be pure, not to lie and not to criticize others;
◊ Rules about personal hygiene and health – here I need to underline the fact that the Bishnoi population have to drink only filtered water and to bathe daily (this one should be included as a rule in all religions). Furthermore, they mustn’t smoke, drink alcohol or eat meat;
◊ Rules about spiritual life – they have to practice the ritualistic fire called havan, of which they say it helps clean the environment, to fast.
- Guru Jambheshwar also instilled the Bishnoi tribes with six rules to avoid violence. These forbid animal sacrifice and they call for the protection of forest animals. As a matter of fact, an animal which is religiously protected and worshipped by the Bishnois is the blackbuck, considered to be the manifestation of Guru Jambheshwar himself.
Furthermore, the non-violence rules include (Vlad’s favorite) putting the water creatures back into the waters in order to save their lives. Also, the Bishnois have to make sure that the dung used as fuel does not have any ant or living being on it that could die from fire.
- The most sacred Bishnoi temple is Mukam (about 80km away from Bikaner city – in Rajasthan, India).
The story of Amrita Devi
- The most famous Bishnoi tribe story is the one of Amrita Devi. She was a young girl that sacrificed her life in order to save the Khejri trees (the state tree of Rajasthan and also the famous Bishnoi tree). When she saw that the soldiers sent from the Jodhpur Court wanted to cut the trees down for their wood, she went and hugged a tree.
However, the soldiers didn’t get intimidated by the girl’s gesture. As such they killed her as they were cutting the tree she was hugging. Her gesture encouraged others in her village. Therefore, they all did the same thing and ran to hug a tree. Until there was an order to stop the cutting of trees, 363 Bishnois lost their lives. And it is from this story the Bishnois are called tree-huggers.
It is believed that the Bishnoi woman’s final words were If a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it. A perfect description of the Bishnoi movement core belief.
- Heroic gestures like the one of Amrita Devi can also be found nowadays. In 2001, a Bishnoi of Rajasthan lost his life trying to defend a deer from getting shot by hunters.
- The Bishnoi society and its care for animals are also visible in gestures which could seem weird in the Western world. Probably one such gesture is breastfeeding a fawn in order to save its life.
- The love which the Bishnoi community shows for nature has proven to ecologists that sometimes human presence and intervention can benefit nature.
The Bishnois and Salman Khan
A major contribution of Bishnois of Rajasthan is represented by the win in the poaching case against Bollywood famous actor Salman Khan. In 1998 the actor was accused of blackbuck and chinkara (the Indian gazelle) poaching. The Bishnois fought in court for over 20 years to bring justice to the protected animals. On April 5th, 2018, Salman Khan was sentenced to 5 years in jail and a fine of 10,000Rs. However, on April 7th, he was granted bail.
Want to know more about the Bishnoi movement in Rajasthan?
If I have aroused your curiosity and want to know more about the Bishnoi population in India, you can watch the movie The Bishnois: India’s Eco-Warriors. Because I guarantee that it’s worth 52 minutes of your time. And you could read more about this subject in Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities (Pankaj Jain). For us, they (the Bishnois) are definitely an incentive to visit Rajasthan again.
What about you? When did you last plant a tree?