Bishnois committed to conservation

There was a time when herds could be spotted even on the outskirts of Delhi. Due to excessive poaching, hunting and habitat destruction blackbucks are now concentrated in areas where protection is provided. This is the reason why large herds found near Bishnoi villages in Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. In Abohar tehsil, 13 Bishnoi villages have been grouped together and the Punjab Government has notified the area as a sanctuary. There are about 5000 blackbucks in the area, according to an estimate.

Bishnois are probably the world’s first conservationists. This sect or faith is completely devoted to nature, and conservation. Janmeswarji, popularly known as Jamboji, started Bishnoi sect way back in 1542. He gave 29 principles for the protection of herbivores and trees. This is how the community got its name Bishnoi as ‘bis’ is 20 and ‘noi’ stands for nine. Jamboji was a great saint and philosopher of medieval India. Born in a well-to-do Rajput family in 1508 in Pipasar village of Nagaur district, Jamboji was the only child of his parents. As a child he was very quiet. He utilised his seclusion as a cowherd for observing people, plants and trees, forests and animals. When he was 18, he met another saint Gorakhnathji. It is believed that the saint influenced his thoughts considerably. After the death of his parents, he renounced his entire property and shifted to Samrathal-sand dunes. This is the place that saw the birth of Bishnoi sect.

Jamboji was against all social and religious barriers. His close study of desert had made him realise the important role played by trees and other forms of vegetation. In September, 1737, in Khejarli village near Jodhpur, Amrita Devi, a Bishnoi woman and mother of three daughters was busy churning milk for extracting butter. Her husband was away working in the fields. Suddenly she heard the sound of someone cutting a tree. She came out to see what was going on.

Girdharidas Bhandari, a senior officer of the Jodhpur state, was ordering his men to cut trees. Many village elders urged the officer to stop the cutting of trees in their village as it was against their faith. But Girdharidas told the gathering that the wood was needed to burn lime and said that that was an order of the ruler, so nobody should try to stop him. Amrita Devi’s heart was crying because she knew that this tree had served as the lifeline of her family and many others who were living in this harsh climate. Driven by her emotions she ran and clung to the tree that was being axed. ‘Cut my body before felling the tree,’ she cried. The woodcutters stopped but Girdharidas ordered his men to cut off her head. Amrita Devi was mercilessly axed along with the tree. Her sacrifice inspired her three daughters Ashi, Ratni and Bhagu. Following on her foot steps they too clung to the tree and were hacked ruthlessly. One after the other 363 Bishnois sacrificed their lives. When the news of this brutality reached the ruler of Jodhpur, he immediately stopped the massacre. But by now the entire Bishnoi community had revolted and it threatened to leave the state if it was not allowed to pursue its faith. The Maharaja apologised for the grave mistake committed by his officer. He issued a royal decree prohibiting the cutting of trees and hunting of wild animals in any Bishnoi village in the Jodhpur state.

Even today, the place where Amrita Devi and 363 other Bishnois sacrificed their lives is preserved as a monument and temple.

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