Writing about the ecology of the Thar desert in the 1980s, famed environmentalist Kailash Sankhala and the biologist and photographer Peter Jackson noted an interesting encounter they had with members of the Bishnoi community while on a wildlife photography expedition in the desert. “I was eager to photograph the blackbuck and chinkara in these idyllic surroundings, but as we maneuvered into position a woman emerged from a nearby house and shepherded the animals away from us,” they note. The woman was soon joined by other members of her community who demanded to know who they were and why they were bothering the animals. Only after they managed to explain to them that they were environmental conservationists were they allowed to stay on in the village. Sankhala and Jackson narrated that they were fortunate since the Bishnois were reputed to “assault and even kill poachers.”
The Bishnois, a Hindu religious sect, found in the Western Thar desert and some northern states of India have earned fame over centuries for their fierce techniques of environment protection. Perhaps the most celebrated among the instances of Bishnoi protection of flora and fauna is the incident dating back to 1730 AD when Amrita Devi along with her daughters lay down their lives, contesting the decision of Maharaja Abhay Singh to cut down Khejri trees in Khejari village of Rajasthan for the sake of building his palace. Legend has it that a total of 363 people died protecting the trees from the saws of the ruler and his men. In recent times though, the Bishnoi has been in the news for a battle they are engaged in, against Bollywood actor Salman Khan.
Khan along with four others — Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Sonali Bhendre and Neelam Kothari — were accused of poaching Chinkara and Blackbuck in Rajasthan during the shoot of the film ‘Hum saath saath hain’ in 1998. The eyewitness accounts of Poonamchand Bishnoi and Chhogaram Bishnoi is what led to the conviction of Khan in the poaching case. In the last 20 years, as the legal system prolonged the judgment for the case, the Bishnoi community continued to battle, pressuring the establishment to work in favour of wildlife rights. For the Bishnoi, bringing justice to the chinkaras and blackbucks allegedly killed by Khan and his colleagues, was not just a matter of environmental responsibility, but also something that was part of their religious tradition.
When religion protects the environment
The Bishnoi trace their origins to the teachings of Guru Jambhesvara who was born to a Panwar Rajput family in 1451 AD at Peepasar village of Nagore district in Western Rajasthan. Jambhesvara is known to have been influenced by Vaishnava traditions and his followers continue to regard him as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. As per Bishnoi mythological tradition, when Jambhesvara was 25, a severe decade-long drought struck Western Rajasthan. Plagued by the difficulties of water and food shortages, people cut down a large number of trees to sell the wood in nearby towns. Moreover, a large number of chinkaras and blackbucks, found in abundance in the area, were killed so that people could consume their meat.
Jambhesvara was deeply moved by the disaster and pondered over time to come up with a solution. Finally, at the age of 34, he had a spiritual revelation to reform society along lines of environmental sustenance. “Based on his teachings about natural resources relevant in the drought years, he succeeded in conserving and protecting several local resources and soon developed a large following among the masses,” writes Professor Pankaj Jain in his work, “Dharma and ecology of Hindu communities”.
Jambhesvara came out with a list of 29 rules that were meant to be staunchly followed by his community of followers in order to lead a healthy, balanced lifestyle. The 29 rules laid down by the founder, is what gives the community its name- bish (20), noi (9). Out of the 29 rules, eight were about protecting the environment that included non-sterilisation of bulls, the prohibition against the killing of animals, prohibition against cutting down of trees. The other rulers were about social behaviour and personal hygiene.
In addition to the 29 rules, his teachings are preserved in the form of 120 statements known as sabdas. Many of these sabdas criticised both Hindus and Muslims for practices in the name of religion that were harmful to the environment. For instance, as noted by Professor Jain, “in the tenth sabda, he criticised those Muslims who killed animals in the name of Muhammad, because Muhammad himself neither killed animals nor asked his followers to do so.” Similarly, he criticised the “tantric yogic practitioners sacrificing animals to Bhairav yogini and asked them to understand the real meaning of yoga.”
The Bishnoi love for flora and fauna
The 29 rules laid out by Guru Jambhesvara along with the 120 sabdas define the religious duty of the Bishnoi, or what is known as their ‘Dharma’. According to the report, “Distribution of the Indian Gazelle or Chinkara in India,” published in 1990 by A R Rahmani, since the Chinkara and the Blackbuck enjoy protection from the Bishnoi community, very large populations of these animals are found around their settlements. Contrarily, in Central India, owing to excessive hunting, most of the Chinakaras have disappeared.
Historically, there are a large number of instances when the Bishnoi have been steadfast in their commitment to the environment. In April 1947, a father and two of his sons are known to have spotted poachers chasing a herd of antelopes. They were killed by the poachers in the attempt to save the animals. Another very sentimental story of Bishnoi love for fauna is that of Rama Devi in Haryana, who is known to have breastfed a fawn to save his life. In 1978, the community protested against the hunting of the Great Indian Bustard in Jaisalmer by Arab sheiks, reacting to which the Indian government managed to save the bird from total extinction. In 2001, the Indian government awarded Gangaram Bishnoi posthumously for having sacrificed his life in an attempt to save a chinkara from being poached.
Ecologists have noted that even animals have started recognising the Bishnoi whom they see as their protectors. “Since Bishnoi wear traditional clothes with familiar colours and patterns, animals feel comfortable in their presence while they run away from outsiders,” writes Jain.
With Salman Khan being granted bail by the Jodhpur court, the environment conscious sect is visibly angry and has decided to continue with the battle they have been fighting for the last 20 years. There are reportedly preparing to file a petition in the Rajasthan High Court challenging the bail. Whether they will be successful in bending the court in favour of their beloved wildlife, we are yet to tell.