True News|Mar 4, 2007 7:56 AM| by:

Conservation as Religion

Try to name a widely practiced faith or religion that is built on the holism of nature. Not a religion that also emphasises concern for nature; there are many. But one that is wholly and solely devoted to nature, and to conservation as the pivot of human life.

You will find one, -not in the bucolic splendour of some green valley, where nature may seduce you to love her- , but in the arid, desolation of north-western India where nature requires a struggle by man to even survive. In this unlikely region will you find those nature-lovers, the Bishnoi folk!


For over half a millennium, the Bishnois have evolved their life-style into a religion that fiercely protects the environment. It is not a religion that has a heritage of myths, miracles, a book, ornate temples or priests. The Bishnois, estimated to be around 6 million, spread over Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, are a practical, wise people who hold lessons for everyone.

Founder Jambaji, born in 1451, cleverly packaged a set of 29 rules by which his followers must live. He was born in Nagaur, Rajasthan, in a Rajput clan, given to warring and conquests. He saw poverty and social discord. Convinced that man can succeed only by taking care of nature, and not by coveting the fruits of another man’s labours, Jambaji walked the barren wilds of Rajasthan, showing how man can live in peace even in those lands, provided he cared.

Never cut a green tree, but wait for a tree to age and die and then use it as timber. Bury your dead simply, so that the earth assimilates the flesh – and you save too, the wood needed for a casket or a cremation. Practice cleanliness and a high level of hygiene, for these will guard you from disease. Protect wildlife – they too play a role in maintaining soil fertility and in holding the balance of harmful and beneficial life forms. Conserve water for use by man and animals, by building tanks everywhere. Of course, practice vegetarianism and be addicted to nothing – alcohol, tobacco or even tea! Do not expect or seek alms or subsidy, from king or government; believe in self-help! Let women, those founts of life, wear bright clothes of red or orange and the men white, as a symbol of undiluted devotion to the faith. If ever you must choose to be violent, may it be in defense of a tree, an animal or your convictions; for this, even embrace death with cheer.

29 Rules

Such was Jambaji’s list of rules to live by, totalling 29 in all. From that number 20 [bis] plus 9 [nau], comes the name of the religion. You can hardly find a more secular creed than that! And the Bishnois have been true to their master’s wishes. You can see them, living their values, in several villages near Jodhpur. The mud floors are plastered with cow dung to keep vermin away. The interiors are airy and clean. Men, women and children exude robust good health. There is a granary to guard their rations, and a sump for stored water. There is an easy paced dignity to life here.

Throughout their long history, they have shown their readiness to die for their beliefs. The most celebrated episode took place as recently as 1730 in the village of Kejarli, near Jodhpur. The land around this village was, as it is today, makes for a pitiless landscape. Scant rainfall allows but four months of farming. People share the grains they raise with animals in need. Central to their lives is the kejri tree [prosopis cineraria], which is almost the only tree that rises to some height, yielding shade, fodder and ultimately some timber. Gazelles and black-buck roam with abandon, confident that the folks all around are the loving kind. Peacocks amble with leisure.

Defiance and Devotion

To this scene, in 1730, the ruler Raja Abhaya Singh sent his soldiers to fell trees for the fort he was building. He needed fuel for his limestone kiln. Amrita Devi stood in the way. She explained to the soldiers the importance of trees to their faith and survival. Then she argued. A crowd soon gathered and joined her in dissuading the soldiers. When everything failed and the loggers began their preparations, Amrita Devi hugged a tree and asked them to cut her before they cut the tree! And lo, it was done! A shocked and outraged crowd was roused to action. One by one, they followed Amrita Devi, hugged a tree, dared the king’s men and were cut dead. The carnage continued; an unending line of Bishnois choosing to die for their love of trees and nature. When a bewildered king finally arrived at the scene and stopped his men, 363 lay dead. Silence enveloped the moment with eloquence. There is probably no parallel to this, in the history of conservation.

Today, in Kejarli there is an eerily silent orchard and a small temple in it, to commemorate the day those 363 Bishnois engraved a message in the conscience of mankind.

Inspiration to Others

And all of India too, seems to be continually inspired by the Bishnoi martyrs. Some believe Mahatma Gandhi, himself hailing from near these parts, realised how simple folk were ready to offer resistance and even court death, when they believed strongly in something. And how all authority and power must quake in the face of such resistance. His civil disobedience and satyagraha ideas, as means to fight the British, may have drawn on Kejarli. More recently, Sundarlal Bahuguna of Garhwal, UP borrowed from the Bishnois to fashion his tree protection programme, called the ‘chipko’. Chipko means ‘cling to’.

The saga of Kejarli is neither the first, nor the last example of Bishnois roused to action in defense of nature. The 1600s too has records of Bishnoi men, women and children dying for their cause. More recently, in 1998, a current cinema star experienced the Bishnoi storm. The actor was in a Jodhpur hotel in connection with a film. A local hanger-on suggested a ‘hunt’. Our hero’s masculinity was roused, but within the bounds of his inherent cowardliness; he chose the dark night, and as simple farmers slept everywhere in their huts, he entered Bishnoi country, took aim at a trusting black-buck, and pulled the trigger. Within seconds of the gun shot, Bishnois were spilling out of their beds like minutemen. The hero panicked and bolted in his jeep. But by then, a Bishnoi had identified it as belonging to a tour operator he knew. An army of Bishnois marched to Jodhpur next day, tracked down the vehicle, followed the trail and laid siege to the hotel where the actor stayed. The police and the government, astonished at the speed and ferocity of the Bishnoi reaction, swung into action and registered a case. It is another story that the case drags on. And, it would have been yet another story again, had the Bishnois caught hold of the actor; they would have lynched this vacuous prince charming without mercy.

Such are the Bishnois! So gentle that that their women are known to suckle orphaned baby-deer, and yet fearless of blood-letting if it came to defending their faith!