The Bishnois – the world’s first environmentalists

A Bishnoi village

“Hug a Tree” by Dr. Nanditha Krishna, is a play written for children to put on, which tells the amazing story of the Bishnoi—the world’s first environmentalists.

The Bishnoi still exist today, as a people in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, in the west of India, near Pakistan.

As Dr. Krishna writes in her introduction, it used to be that every village in India had a sacred grove, while every temple had a sacred tank and a sacred tree. “Every river and hill was sacred.”  In fact, this is still, in large measure, true today.

Over time though, some traditions have eroded, and even in earlier centuries, when the events of the play take place, there had already been a fading away of the traditions of reverence for nature.

Over the past twenty years, with Dr. Krishna as Honorary Director, CPREEC, the CPR Environmental Education Centre, who published the book, “Hug a Tree” have been working throughout all of southern India to re-establish the values of reverence and care for the environment—including restoring over fifty of the traditional sacred groves.  The publication of this book honors the twentieth anniversary of CPREEC.

The origins of the Bishnoi go back to the sixteenth century when a holy man, Guru Jambeshwarji, in around 1535, prescribed 29 guiding principles, some of which relate to animals and nature.  For example, his followers were forbidden to cut down any living tree.  Although cremation is the usual custom in India, burying the dead became the custom of the Bishnoi.  This was to protect the trees that might have been cut down to provide wood for cremation fires.

The word CHIPKO, meaning “hug a tree” became their slogan.

In the first few scenes of the play, a village child Jamba, who does not speak, grows up to be the leader of his people, Guru Jambeshwarji, teaching them to revere and care for all animals, stating that when he dies he will be “reborn in every blackbuck.”

Next, in 1730, in Khejarli, Rajasthan,  a woman, Amrita Devi, is cooking with her three daughters, when there is a commotion in the village. Men sent by the king have come to cut down the Khejri trees, which are sacred trees.

A Khejri tree

Khejri trees are small to medium-size trees with slender branches, of the pea family. They are found in the dry lands of southwest Asia. Their pods are used as food for humans and as fodder for animals.

In this event, which is an actual, historical occurrence, Amrita Devi calls on the men to stop, saying that they are sacred trees that must not be cut down.

Willing to sacrifice her life for the tree, she offers her head, and is beheaded.  This does not save the tree though, since the men continue to cut down the trees.  Amrita’s daughters follow her example, sacrificing their lives as well.

One of the Bishnois announces that for every Khejeri tree cut down, one villager will sacrifice his or her life—and so it happens.  Old people and young people, men, women, and children step forward to sacrifice their lives for the trees.

At the end of the day, 363 Khejeri trees have been cut down and 363 Bishnois have given their lives.

As well as being a historical event, this is also a particularly Indian idea—the concept of self-sacrifice in following one’s duty in life is a thread that has run through all of Indian tradition and philosophy, over thousands of years.

The next morning the king arrives, and is shocked to learn about the way in which all these people have been killed.  He apologizes for the horrific mistake and declares that from that time on every animal and every tree on the Bishnoi lands will be fully protected.

The Cenotaph in Khejarli, in honor of those who gave their lives for the trees.

The Old Woman in the play remarks that even though the Bishnois paid such a terrible price, their action has inspired defenders of the environment ever since.

The Bishnois have continued to act heroically to protect nature and wildlife, up through present times. In 1996, Nihal Chand Bishnoi, a young man, was shot and killed while trying to save deer from poachers.  His death inspired an award-winning film “Willing to Sacrifice.”

“Hug a Tree” is a play that expresses beautifully the Indian tradition of courage and self-sacrifice, and, in the words of Dr. Krishna, that ”environmental protection is a sacred duty.”

To visit the CPREEC website, go to

http://www.cpreec.org

Top photo: J.M. Gharg, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, Wikipedia / Khejri Tree

Second photo: Ajbishnoisuper, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, Wikipedia / A Bishnoi Village

Third photo: LRBurdak, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, Wikipedia / Cenotaph at Khejarli

10 thoughts on “The Bishnois – the world’s first environmentalists

  1. I am contacting you on behalf of BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) to request permission to use the images of Bishnoi Village featured on your web site.

    http://sharonstjoan.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/the-bishnois-%E2%80%93-the-world%E2%80%99s-first-environmentalists/

    If you have other pictures of Sacred Groves that you would be happy for us to use they would be much appreciated.
    We will, of course, credit you as the author of the photographs.
    We would like to use them in an education pack produced by BGCI, entitled ‘Seeds of Unity’.
    BGCI (www.bgci.org) is a UK based plants’ conservation charity that networks botanic gardens around the world. BGCI’s aim is to raise awareness of the importance of plants in supporting human-well-being and to ensure that no plant becomes extinct.
    The purpose of the Seeds of Unity project is to encourage botanic gardens to broaden their audiences and engage with people across three different religions –Christianity, Islam, Hinduism– and humanism. The on-line activity pack is aimed at Key Stage 2 children (7-11 years of age) and includes a combination of classroom and outdoor activities that focus on the relationship between faith, belief and plants. The education pack which will be published on BGCI’s website will be available as a free download for teachers and educators all over the UK.
    As the launch of the resources is taking place in the end of July, 2011, I would appreciate your prompt response.
    Many thanks.
    Kind regards
    Jane Challenor
    BGCI

  2. Sharon: I am deeply respectful of the Bishnois, reverential toward their sacrifice. I’ve not heard of them. I teach world civilization and must integrate their Event into my India lessons. I would like to comment that it was king versus the trees. The Bishnois, basically without any bureaucratic clout and power, take on the king’s henchmen. They had their bodies and they gave them up for trees and family. Old story — the people against the hierarchy. The shining New story is the reverence — to the point of giving up their lives — the Bishnois had for the sacred tree. So many creatures and living things are being ground under by bulldozers and the almighty chase for another dollar. Chris Clarke’s blog about tortoises in Ivanapa in NV and CA and the prairie chicken in the TX panhandle being swamped with MacHouses should stir us to activism and confrontation. The tortoises lost out. The prairie chicken is down in a field count to 30,000 from a million a century ago. I write feverishly in my blog frequently about saving living communities and sacred groves in the American West. I try to write about the beauty and kinship we have with animal and plant communities, hoping that it will bring sensitivity to a sickness of the heart whose only cure seems to be gold. That’s the wrong medicine. Our tonic for cure is to see cottonwoods and shade trees that shelter us from the sun, animals that lick the wounds of their young and birds that soar for the pleasure of flight. I’m pessimistic that my writing or anyone’s writing — standing alone — is going to slow mechanization. Yet, if India with its population and long history can survive, perhaps we can too in the American West. We don’t have to imitate the act of the Bishnois, just yet, but their narrative should stop a few bulldozers from even getting off the flatbed.

    1. Jack, Thank you for your very profound comment and for all your efforts to save the wilderness and wild animals and plants. They are sacred– whether in India or in the American west. Whatever the outcome, the energy and dedication that goes into working on their behalf, whether through writing, or sacrificing one’s life as the Bishnois did, or speaking up for them in any other way–is never wasted effort.

      1. hi sharon i am banshilal here, a remarkable job done, we all must fight for trees in this era of natural disastures otherwise our future seems very murky. thanks you are welcome on anual congregation at khejarli on sep 14 in remembrence of khejarli sacrifice in 1730.

      2. Thank you Banshilal, I wish I could be there. Can you send me a photo? And an announcement of the event — either before or after it happens, and then I can post a story about it? Yes, you are right, we must all fight for trees!

    2. Respected Jack , i am Banshilal here you rightly said that we (BISHNOIS) fought against the kings henchmen with valour to save the trees. i feel proud to have such legacy and thanks to people like you who encourage us in our efforts to protect trees and wild animals. we love them because our garu jamboji tought us “jiv daya palni, runkh lilo ni ghavo” .

  3. Dear Sharon

    It’s excellent – much better than the play. Thank you very much.

    Love

    Nanditha

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