Leading an ensemble, Swami Rajendra Anand sings hymns from his place at the centre of the divan, into a mike, as an entourage of devotees sways to the rhythm. Next to him, placed at a certain height, is a vertical loudspeaker. Sitting atop the black speaker, Janki Das calmly listens to the music. Barely a few metres away, the priests and the believers offer prayers to a flame, representing Lord Jambheshwar. Further away, in the open space, a larger “organic” flame is burning, encircled by revolving devotees who offer coconut and ghee to the fire.
When the recitations stop, Das climbs down majestically. People first make way for him and then surround him. Das unfurls his feathers and starts dancing. A magnificent peacock, he is looked upon as a reincarnation of a Bishnoi saint by the residents of Jajiwal Dhora village in Jodhpur.
Peacocks are known to shy away from humans. But Das lets them touch his feathers and click photographs, dutifully posing for the camera. Above them, sparrows, pigeons and several other birds twitter, as a few young deer roam about freely. The temple’s priest, Vishuda Nand, says, “the mysticism is there for all to see.”
The Bishnois’ love of animals and the environment is well documented. Of the 29 guiding principles of this tribe in Rajasthan, number 18 says that one should be benevolent and kind towards animals. “Imagine yourself being pricked by a thorn, let alone a knife,” says Swami Vishuda Nand, alluding to actor Salman Khan and others who allegedly killed blackbucks and gazelles here in 1998. Khan was recently acquitted in two cases of poaching chinkaras in Bhawad near Jodhpur.
There is anger in the community over the actor’s acquittal. “We are unhappy, also over the lenient animal cruelty laws and the rising animal deaths. The Akhil Bharatiya Bishnoi Mahasabha has called a rally to push the government to amend the laws and approach the Supreme Court over Salman’s acquittal,” says Swami Rameswar Das of the temple.
Every few hours or so, somebody turns up with an injured deer at the temple. It also doubles as a treatment centre for non-serious injuries, which explains the presence of dozens of deer in various stages of recuperation.
Laxman Bishnoi, 20, didn’t think twice about getting his clothes, especially his white shirt, dirty when he saw dogs chasing the deer, now in his arms. “The soil is soft because of the rains, and, hence, they can’t run as fast,” he says. He called up forest department officials but the calls went unanswered. So his friend Demaram, 25, and he loaded the deer on their bike and brought it to the temple, where caretaker Khanga Ram, in his 50s, would nurse them to health.
There are separate enclosures at the temple for injured deer, one for the injured young, and another for the older ones. “There are those bitten by dogs, some are injured in accidents and some are abandoned by their mothers,” Khanga Ram says. The deer are then released into the wild flanking the temple, which is atop a small hill. Small herds roam around the temple freely.
Bhanwar Lal Bishnoi, 30, too arrives with two calves, and has a similar story. “They were deserted by their mother and the dogs were after them. Lost my slippers while saving them,” he says. But it is not that Bishnois are opposed to dogs. “They are animals too. We feed them too but we feel they should be controlled,” says Kalu Ram, block president of Bishnoi Tigers’ Force, an organisation fiercely committed to animal protection.
The Bishnois seek better facilities to protect and save deer. “The deer have weak hearts and often, while bringing them here, they die on the way. We’ve been demanding animal rescue centres at the block level, which will, at most, be only 20-30 kilometres away from any site, while currently the forest department’s rescue centre is as far as 80 kilometres,” says Ramniwas Dhoru, state secretary of the Bishnoi Tigers’ Force.
A decade ago, Dhoru, along with the SHO of the local police station, had chased poachers on a jeep and a bike, leading to a showdown which, thanks to the SHO, ended without any fatal injuries. His mother Sita Bishnoi, 62, recalls how the community kept watch at night after a spurt in poaching incidents around the year 1996. “We caught five poachers and detained them for days, to teach them a lesson — though I did make chapattis for them too,” she says. “Earlier, we didn’t know about the laws, so we used to penalise them by asking them to arrange fodder for a week or more, depending on their crime,” she says.
Then there are those who have given their lives to save deer. About two-and-a-half years ago, Mangilal Bishnoi was with his brother Shaitaan Singh Bishnoi in Naneu village, when they confronted poachers in the night. Shaitaan was fatally shot by one of the poachers, who fled the spot, leading to massive protests by the community in January 2014. But it is not just animals that they protect; almost three centuries ago, one Amrita Devi is said to have led a tree-hugging movement — a forebear of the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand in 1973 — after a Jodhpur king ordered his lumberjacks to fetch wood; as many as 363 Bishnois were said to have been killed then.
Government veterinarian Dr Shrawan Singh says while poaching is prevalent, feral dogs are behind as much as 90 per cent of injuries and deaths of blackbucks, chinkaras, etc. “About five per cent are injured in road accidents, while the remaining due to poaching, and wired fencing around homes,” he says.