India’s original eco-warriors: Meet the Bishnoi community who won’t cut down living trees

The Bishnoi community are India’s original eco-warriors.

Members of the Hindu sect - which has more than 1.5 million devotees - have been fighting to protect the environment for more than 500 years.

The community believes in the sanctity of all life, shunning meat and avoiding felling living trees.

Spread mostly in hamlets across the state of Rajasthan, members draw inspiration from Amrita Devi, a Bishnoi woman killed in 1730 while trying to protect a grove of khejari trees.

Why do the Bishnoi protect trees and animals?

The Bishnoi community was established in the 16th century by Guru Jambheshwar.

Many of the Guru’s 29 precepts - rules that govern the conduct of believers - are explicit about the protection of nature.

Devotees agree to “be merciful to all living beings and love them” and “not to cut green trees”.

In 1730, 363 Bishnoi men, women, and children died for these beliefs.

According to legend, a local king sent his men to cut wood so that he could fuel cement lime kilns and build his palace.

In an attempt to block the loggers, Amrita Devi rushed out of her home and wrapper herself around a tree trunk.

But the soldiers showed no mercy, explains Sukhdev Godara, a retired schoolteacher

“They were trying to save trees by hugging them,” he said.

“Many other people joined them, but the king's men chopped down the trees along with their heads."

Devi’s last words were recorded as: "A chopped head is cheaper than a felled tree."

Other Bishnoi villagers - including Devi's three daughters - followed suit, hugging the trees as they were decapitated. In all, 363 Bishnoi were killed. Their sacrifice is now commemorated with a monument in the village inscribed with each of their names and topped with a statue of Amrita Devi.

The event helped to inspire the modern-day Chipko movement, one of the strongest forest conservation movements in India.

AFP
In this photograph taken on November 14, 2022, women from Bishnoi community take a break from working in a field in Bhawad village, some 30 kms from Jodhpur - AFP

How do modern Bishnoi embody these beliefs?

Many modern Bishnoi are inspired by the devotion their ancestors showed.

Bishnoi men are mostly farmers and patrol the land to make sure no animal is harmed.

Advocate Rampal Bhawad co-founded the Bishnoi Tiger Force, an environmental campaign group and anti-poaching organisation.

"We should live in harmony with nature and be kind towards all living beings, because in the future that is how the human race will move forward and develop,” he says.

Nearby, 45 year-old Ghevar Ram has devoted his life to animals, running a rescue centre for injured creatures.

"I treat animals like my own children. This is what we are taught since our childhood," he says.

Ram’s wife Sita Devi is similarly devoted.

The mother-of-seven fuels her cooking fire with cow dung cakes rather than firewood - and once breastfed an orphaned antelope fawn.

"I was working in the fields when I saw a fawn being attacked by feral dogs. I rescued the fawn and brought it home," she said.

"I fed the fawn my own milk, and once he regained strength, I released it in the wild.”

Although a subsect of Hinduism, the Bishnoi do not cremate their dead because that would mean cutting down trees to fuel the fire.

"Our guru taught us to bury our dead instead," says schoolteacher Godara.