If you’d asked me a year ago who are the Bishnois or had me tell you a phrase about them, I would have probably come out with “Some folks in India!”. Because I have to admit this was mostly everything I knew about them.
And then I came across People Trees, the book I’ve told you about, and there I found an impressive story about the Bishnois people. I figured it was high time to learn more about them. Why? Because they originate from Rajasthan and it was one of our stops in our wanderings in India. So I didn’t want to play the ignorant tourist role.
I discovered a fascinating people, with a religion combining religious rules with ecological ones. The Bishnois, also called tree-huggers, show a religion based on care towards nature. So, ladies and gentlemen, I present you the Bishnois 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.
- 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.
- Guru Jambheshwar is considered an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. However, it is interesting to notice that the Bishnois have neither idols nor statues of gods in their temples. On the other hand, Hindu temples are full of them.
- Bishnoi actually means the people of the 29 rules (Bish = 20, Noi = 9). The Bishnoi religion is based on the 29 rules as told by Guru Jambheshwar.
Which are the Bishnois’ religious precepts?
- The 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);
◊ 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 Bishnois 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 provided the Bishnois with six rules to avoid violence. These forbid animal sacrifice and they call for the protection of forest animals. Furthermore, they include (Vlad’s favorite) putting the water creatures back in 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 sacred temple of the Bishnois is Mukam (about 80km away from Bikaner city – in Rajasthan, India).
The story of Amrita Devi
- The most famous 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). 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.
- Heroic gestures like the one of Amrita Devi can also be found nowadays. In 2001, a Bishnoi man lost his life trying to defend a deer from getting shot by hunters.
- Their care for animals is also clear through gestures which could seem weird in Western society . Probably one such gesture is breast feeding a fawn in order to save its life.
- The love of Bishnois for nature has proven to ecologists that sometimes human presence and intervention can benefit nature.
Want to know more?
If I have aroused your curiosity, 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?