There is much to admire and learn from Bishnoi women. Especially, how to move from ‘ecological conservation’ to a culture where the service of the environment becomes a revered tradition, and the normal way of life.
It has been three hours since sunrise. Guda Bishnoi, a village in Jodhpur, unravels the final spurt of celebrations of Baisakh, the month when farmers mark the harvest of crops with festivities and prayers. Barju Devi Bishnoi, a resident of Guda Bishnoi, was at a nearby lake for a Baisakh ritual moments ago with a set of spades, some gur (jaggery), pots, ghee and a lamp. She says, "for a Bishnoi woman in Guda, a visit to the lake marks the beginning to the day during Baisakh. We offer our prayers and seva (service as part of ritual) at the lake. The seva includes digging the soil, ensuring there are no pollutants around, ensuring that the lake remains in good condition to welcome thirsty birds for the day. We return the next morning to do the same."
For Bishnois, especially the women, Baisakh means more than agriculture consciousness. It extends to protecting the environment and ecology – an important element and tenet of their day to day living. It also marks the end and beginning of a cycle, a calendar, upheld by Bishnoi sentiment towards ecology.
Earlier this year, the conviction against Bollywood actor Salman Khan in the case for poaching a black buck in Kankani, another village near Bishnoi Guda, placed the Bishnoi community under the spotlight once again. Mahipal Bishnoi, a well known advocate from Jodhpur who represented the Bishnois in the Salman Khan case, said that the conviction has sent out a "strong message to poachers and hunters", adding, “with a more stringent punishment for crimes on wildlife”.
According to Mahipal, while one part of the consistent movement towards protecting ecology is sustained by Bishnoi men, women from the sect play a crucial role in setting firm ground for it. He says, "the history and culture of Bishnois has seen women leading the front for the protection of ecology. Women establish and strengthen the Bishnoi community's set of values. These values inspire men to take a stand against anyone or any action that goes against the principles from Guru Jambeshwar ji or the core of the sacrifice of Amrita Devi Bishnoi."
Twenty and nine. Twenty nine principles. "Bees aur Nau" – makes the followers of these 29 principles laid by Guru Jambeshwar – the founder of Bishnoi community fondly addressed as Jambo ji, Bishnoi.
Barju Devi is on her way to a temple nearby, where she would join other women in worship. The worship involves and extends to a little more than prayers and lighting of the lamp. It includes seva – serving the trees, wild animals, cattle and water bodies in the village. With a spade, she would loosen the soil around the trees in the temple compound, helping them breathe better in the heat.
The road cutting the forest in Guda Bishnoi leads me to the temple. Here, women are singing bhajans (devotional songs) dedicated to "Jambo ji" – Lord Jambeshwar – the founder of the Bishnoi sect, Krishna and Vishnu. Their voices are like gold scraped by heat and sand – coarse and rich. Women, mostly Bishnoi, dressed in the brightest red, pink and orange traditional attire give flames of colour to the onset of a cruel summer. At the temple, they culminate after a tiresome round of digging and clearing of the banks and parts of the lake. Barju Devi walks to the temple well with a sense of purpose. The clink-clank of her silver ornaments follows her.
She draws some pots of water from the well and narrates what an average day for a Bishnoi woman is like during summer. She adds, "we think about having our meals only after serving the manifestations of life around us. Bishnoi women are even busier after Baisakh – when the real work begins – the growing of the crops. Sangri is prepared for the numerous cycles and many recipes in the Bishnoi kitchen." She offers pots of water to the trees. "tree is the bindu of life. Like the bindi on the forehead. Yours is little above the usual mark, but we both wear one. You sing Krishna bhajans, we, bhajans to Krishna, Vishnu and Jambo ji. Our dharm is about loving nature and manifestations of life, but Bishnoi goes a step ahead in following it," she explains.
Khamma Ram Bishnoi, a leading environment activist based in Jodhpur, was recently in Delhi to deliver a lecture on Bishnoi community's commitment to environment and on his work against the use of plastic. Khamma Ram has delivered a talk on environment at the UNESCO headquarters. He tells Swarajya, "Jambo ji launched the movement for protecting ecology and environment during the Bhakti movement. There is scientific thought involved in the tenets laid by him. I consider him one of the first scientists working towards environment. The movement he launched for the protection of ecology is exceptional. Bishnoi women have been at its forefront."
Animal life, plants and trees are more than a "cause" for the Bishnois, the original ecological warriors of India. It is an aspect of life in Jodhpur and villages around it that many outsiders do not understand or see in the religious and cultural context. Any harm to the animals, plants and trees would be seen in cultural and religious context of Jodhpur. In Bishnoi Guda, love for trees, animals and the environment is intertwined in devotion, religiosity and culture. It exists in the most vibrant expressions and colours. Every effort to conserve ecology begins at home. Love for trees is found wrapped in sacred threads around the barks. Some threads seen, many and more unseen and intangible. Bishnoi protects all animals, but the antelope is special. It is considered sacred.
Pictures of Bishnoi women, especially those living in Bishnoi Guda seen breastfeeding orphaned fawns, have been shared widely by travellers and visitors to the region. These images are moving reflections of vatsalya prem – the love of a mother for the child. The beautiful Bishnoi women offer love and care to suckling fawns, temporarily substituting for the absent mother. Here, the Bishnoi women seemingly become one with nature.
How does the act of breastfeeding a fawn set apart the Bishnois of Guda Bishnoi from other communities upholding forest-based life and traditions? Barju Devi explains, "we feed them like we feed our own babies. Kindness towards animals and plants is part of the sacred tenets we follow. It manifests in our day to day living. Our dharm."
Women in Bishnoi community are at the core of the unfaltering ecological movement since Amrita Devi Bishnoi who laid down her life for protecting Khejri trees in Khejarli village. Bishnoi resistance gave India and the world an environmental movement. Today, women like Barju Devi Bishnoi are at the forefront of protecting and preserving trees, animal life, natural resources and environment in the strongly-knit Bishnoi samaj. They commemorate the sacrifice of Amrita Devi Bishnoi in every small effort towards saving and preserving ecology, and in a mela (a congregation) held in Khejarli village, annually, to remember the sacrifice.
The Bishnois, in 1730, had resisted the cutting and felling of Khejri trees for the building of a palace for the then Maharaja of Jodhpur, by hugging them, trying to prevent them from the axe. Amrita Devi Bishnoi became the seed, word and leading force of this resistance. The resistance picked up pace and 363 Bishnois sacrificed their lives. The maharaja apologised after the devastation. From him, in repentance, came a decree that no trees would be cut and no antelope harmed or killed in Bishnoi villages.
Centuries after the sacrifice of Amrita Devi Bishnoi, testimonies of Poonamchand Bishnoi, who is hailed by Mahipal for "standing firm Ganga and courageous" in the Salman Khan case, came as a soft reminder of the Bishnoi community's steadfast resolve to protect animals and ecology. Mahipal adds, "Poonamchand Bishnoi did not buckle under pressure. The community stood behind him. Our collective values stood behind us. It was a struggle that lasted 20 years." The Bishnoi community welcomed the actor's conviction.
Mahipal adds, "the case and conviction against the Bollywood actor was full of challenges. The Bishnoi community persisted against all odds – undaunted by any factor or pressure that would confront our faith in values and tenets laid by Guru Jambeshwar ji." This was, however, not the first time a Bishnoi stood for his values. Bishnois have braved bullets to confront poachers. Some have lost their lives in fighting for the protection of animals. "Nihal Chand Bishnoi is one of them. Ganga Ram Bishnoi is one of them," adds Mahipal.
Nihal Chand was protecting a chinkara (gazelle). Ganga Ram courageously fought killers of chinkara and got killed while confronting them. "the conviction has proved helpful. Neeche tapke ke shikari darne lag gaye, ki itne bade aadmi ko saza ho gayee to hum to machchar hain (smaller hunters fear getting punished now, knowing that a popular man got convicted). It created a pressure on them," Khamma Ram adds.
In Guda Bishnoi, I find myself at the spiritual cusp of values that ring with people in Uttarakhand, the state I call "home". Uttarakhand's Chipko Andolan, was a modern reminder of Bishnoi resistance that took place two centuries after the horrific killings in Khejarli village where Amrita Devi led from the front. Jangpu Devi Bishnoi, another resident of Guda Bishnoi, knows Uttarakhand as "the home of rivers Jamuna ji and Ganga ji",
The mention of Ganga moistens her eyes. She says, "All elder women in our family have been to Ganga ji in Haridwar and Rishikesh for pilgrimage. The touch of Ganga ji is spiritually elevating. Fifteen years ago, my father-in-law hosted a grand meal for people from 84 villages before setting off on the pilgrimage. People from all castes were invited for the meal. It was a matter of honour for us to host people from all castes and all walks of life."
At her compound, Jangpu Devi sits with other women in the family with the day's stock of sangri harvested from their fields in village Khejarli, to sort, clear and clean heaps of fresh, green and tender sangri – pods that grow on the Khejri tree. The sun rubs them more tender. Their fragrance lingers in Jangpu Devi's compound. With it, lingers the thought of Bishnois, 363 of them. For the Bishnois, sangri is much more than just food growing on the Khejri tree. It is a fruit of perseverance, produced from the tree they consider a sacred giver. Jangpu Devi says, "Khejri is scared. It is a reminder of sacrifice and courage. Why would you not protect a tree that gives so much and supports life?"
According to Jangpu Devi, a good share of the bajra they produce is kept aside for the birds that visit Guda lake. "Geraiyan (also known as Gauraiya), mor (peacocks), cranes, pigeons, sparrows and other birds receive what we grow on our fields." Among the birds protected is Kurjaan, which finds mention in folk songs of the region.
Bishnoi women's internalised movement to save and protect their environment has moved from an emotional milestone to some realistic effects through the years. The younger generations are shaped in the tenets of dharm and uphold values in day to day living.
In times spiced with awareness and connectivity, Bishnoi girls from younger generations are aware of the media narrative regarding their beliefs. Puja and Vimla Bishnoi, students of Class XI at a government school on the road towards Kankani (the village where the infamous hunting down of the blackbluck took place) are studying science. In her interaction with Swarajya, Vimla Bishnoi lays down a sharp one. She says, "People in other cities and backgrounds must understand what matters to us and our environment. What use is education if you fail to understand Bishnois and their commitment to animals, birds, trees, plants and and environment?" Puja, initially shy during the conversation, says, "There are young Bishnoi girls in Guda Bishnoi studying and aspiring to be successful administrators in Rajasthan. The state deserves to get environment-conscious woman officers."
Elaichi Bishnoi, another resident of Guda Bishnoi, explains her interpretation of dharm-driven values. She says, "Any outsider with respect for our dharm will not bring harm or pain to us or the trees, plants and animals we consider sacred. It is simple decorum. The person who understands his own dharm will understand ours."
What lies at the core of their seva to the trees, animals and other manifestations of life? Lakshmi Bishnoi, a student of Class XI living in Guda Bishnoi minding a herd of cows near a water hole, says, "As strong units of the Bishnoi family and the Bishnoi samaj, we have to continue living the tenets of dharm laid by Jambo ji. They shape our living."
Barju Devi adds,"Our daughters, while pursuing education, remain grounded to our core values and culture. What's the use of education if we forget the values set for us by our gurus?"
Elaichi is eagerly waiting for the rains. "Bishnoi Guda brims with more life and more colour during the rains. We spend most part of the day on fields and in keeping a check on the water harvesting tanks that meet the joint family's needs for the entire year," she says. She shows the used for water harvesting tanks at her residence. "We do not waste a drop of water. Similarly, what is grown on the fields during the rainy seasons fills up our stock of food for the entire year. The tanka (tanks) provide water even for the animals, all year round."
Elaichi's husband and a farmer, Raju Ram Bishnoi, gives the credit to Bishnoi women for passing on principles that have become part of prayer, to younger generations. He says, "Even today, Bishnoi women are living the very set of values Amrita Devi had sacrificed her life for. It is tough but it makes them and our families what we are."
Bishnois' internalised efforts to bring back the ecology in the region is made of some hard decisions – big and small. "we depend on dry leaves for our fuel needs, no matter how hard or time consuming it becomes," Jangpu Devi adds. Bishnois, the ardent environmentalists do not burn the dead. These rules are not only followed to protect the smallest twig, but also preserve a set of cultural values most crucial to their environment. "Sirr santhey rookhrahey toh bhi sasto jaan" (beheading me is a cheap price to pay in return for the life of a tree), these words of Amrita Devi live in every Bishnoi," Jangpu devi adds.
"Bishnoi women's sacrifice to protect environment precedes even the resistance and horrific killings in Khejarli," Khamma Ram adds. Jangpu Devi hands over a fistful of sangri as a token of her affection. She says, "being a Bishnoi is not easy. My final destination is Ganga. Until then, I will do everything to save what is ours." It's a sentiment we need more than the Bishnois.
Pictures: Sumati Mehrishi