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Meeting the Bishnoi - the conservators of rural Rajasthan

Rajasthan is synonymous with valiant Rajputs who fought to death in battle while protecting their opulent palaces, but look a little harder and you'll find some rather gentler people living a much simpler way of life.

In rapidly modernising India the Bishnoi  follow the same way of life they have done for 500 years, though it’s a way that can be best described by the contemporary buzz phrase ‘sustainable living’; the Bishnoi care for and protect animals, trees and the whole environment around them.

Close to a tiny settlement in rural Rajasthan normally shy chinkara gazelle happily wander by the roadside and blackbuck, an endangered antelope which only remains in protected reserves elsewhere in India, graze undisturbed in Bishnoi farmlands. I’m invited by a woman with a large half-moon shaped nose ring to enter a simple thatched hut. It’s cool inside and though spartan, when my eyes adjust to the dim light I see that it’s spotlessly clean and the family’s few belongings are neatly arranged. While a small bird helps itself to some seed I learn how to grind millet that will become part of a simple vegetarian meal; the Bishnoi never harm or kill any living creature or eat meat.

Since the 15th century the Bishnoi have followed the 29 principles of Jambheshwar, whose code of conduct was designed to aid their survival in the harsh deserts of Rajasthan. He was a forward thinking guru indeed and these days would no doubt be an award-winning conservationist. Central to what soon became a religion for the “29ers” was the direction not to cut down any living tree. The Khejri tree that grows here tolerates the extreme climate and finds water by sending its roots way deep into the ground. It’s almost evergreen, gives shade from the sun, provides fodder for animals and fruits fit for humans, it releases enriching nitrogen into the soil and provides fuel for fires. It’s a super-plant extraordinaire.

Bishnoi devotion was put to the test in the 18th century when the maharaja of Jodhpur, in need of much timber, sent his army to chop down the forests. All the villagers could do was put their arms around the trees to protect them but the soldiers carried out their orders. 363 Bishnoi sacrificed their lives to save the trees. Visit any desert village and you’ll find this story has become a legend, but it’s one worth being proud of. Forget the warring Rajputs and meet the Bishnoi – Rajasthan’s very own eco-warriors.

Read more about how to find the heart of rural Rajasthan.

Posted by: Andrea Hulme

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