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

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