Members of the Bishnoi community in India would readily lay down their lives to protect the environment.

It is a telling comment that barely 25 kilometres from Jodhpur, known as the Blue City among the northwestern Indian desert state of Rajasthan's colour-coded cities, followers of the Bishnoi faith are strictly prohibited from wearing blue, or neel in the local Marwari dialect.

The reason: blue clothing would be dyed in indigo, requiring large amounts of indigo shrubs to be cut down to produce it. It is worthwhile to consider that Bishnois have been adhering to such beliefs for centuries and do so today as well.

The approximately six million members of the Bishnoi community are scattered across Rajasthan and the other north Indian states of Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.

The Bishnois of Rajasthan in particular gained pan-Indian recognition due to their insistence on the prosecution of Hindi film star Salman Khan after he was apprehended for allegedly hunting chinkara and black bucks — both highly endangered species — in the Bishnoi areas near Jodhpur in October 1998. The Bishnois — the word literally translates into bish (twenty) and noi (nine) — have been strongly abiding by the 29 tenets of their spiritual leader, Guru Jambeshwar, since the movement was founded in 1485.

Eight of them exhort the community to protect and sustain the environment. The community has, therefore, been promulgating eco-friendly principles and necessities of sustainable development centuries before it became fashionable to do so.

One tenet especially asserts that Bishnoi followers should be willing to sacrifice their lives rather than allow the destruction of flora and fauna.

It is the Bishnois' determined adherence to such values that has helped them survive and ensure the survival of the fragile desert ecosystem.

The Bishnoi faith and its followers are those islands of tradition which have been able to withstand the tide of modernity that threatens to engulf their centuries-old belief system.

"It is drummed into our heads since childhood that we must always protect the environment," says Pradeep Bishnoi, a prominent member of the community, as we drive from Jodhpur towards the village of Gudda Bishnoi. "We are taught to protect both small and large animals. For example, rather than immediately destroying an anthill to prevent ants from coming into the house, we place a stone on top of the mound. The ants then migrate in a different direction."

A sign of the Forest Department of Rajasthan announces that we are entering the Bishnoi lands and that hunting is strictly prohibited. The Bishnoi community's vigilance towards protecting the desert ecosystem has helped wildlife thrive in peace; it has also become one of the best places to spot animal species such as deer, black buck and various kinds of antelope — the chinkara among them.

We pause at a spot dominated by Chilean mesquite trees. Only buffaloes graze in the distance. Pradeep then points out the skilfully camouflaged sand-coloured female black buck grazing alongside the buffaloes. "All animals peacefully coexist here," he remarks.

Two jeeps suddenly pull up behind our car, disgorging two guides and tourists; the guides start speaking in German while the tourists immediately begin to photograph the animals. The black bucks, however, are so sensitive to the presence of the humans that they begin to retreat, almost vanishing into the clumps of acacia.

"We are not disturbed by the tourists," Pradeep says afterwards, watching the jeeps go past us. "However, some time ago, the hotel guides would arrive with jeeps full of tourists and then start to pursue the animals. Our people started to get angry and we eventually had to restrain the guides from coming. However, we have now reached an understanding that [the guides] are permitted to come [if they don't] pursue the animals."

Insidious factors

The intrusive presence of tourists is not the sole factor threatening to erode the relative peace and security that these animals enjoy in the Bishnoi lands. Pradeep points out cement crushers protruding from the ground located close to where the buffaloes continue to graze. "Such changes will definitely impact the wildlife. The animals [get] startled and suffer stress when they hear high-decibel noises," he says.

The ongoing conflict between humans and animals becomes even worse when considered in the context of the fervour with which the Bishnois protect the environment. Jodhpur's expansion has resulted in commercial and residential plots being earmarked close to the Bishnoi lands; the area that once sprouted desert scrub has now been reduced to a jumble of concrete and stone, which limits the space in which animals can freely roam about.

"We naturally oppose such developments but we also cannot be insensitive to the demands of [the] population," Pradeep says.

Talk of Salman Khan is inevitable in these parts and Pradeep gestures towards the approximate location where Khan apparently hunted the black buck.

"The people heard gunshots and ran out of their houses towards him," he says. In fact, one of the primary reasons for Khan's indictment is that the two witnesses, both Bishnois, refused to turn hostile, as is common in such criminal cases, claiming that they had followed Khan's vehicle and seen him shooting the black buck.

The Bishnoi community worships the black buck as a manifestation of their revered Guru Jambeshwar and are, consequently, fiercely protective of the animal. "Guides have full knowledge of the traditional and religious significance of protecting wildlife for our community and yet will bring people to hunt in our lands," Pradeep says, adding that fatalities among hunters and Bishnois have occurred when the latter rushed out to restrain the hunters.

According to Pradeep, the hunters act on instructions of the city hotels, which often send them out to kill the animals; the hunter himself only receives a small sum while the hotels sell the meat at high prices to their guests.

Tourist influx

Apart from hunters encroaching on Bishnoi lands, the area has also become a popular tourist attraction among those visiting Jodhpur.

Pradeep reiterates that they have no issues with the influx of tourists into their villages, although he wryly mentions that the children have become a little too accustomed to soliciting tips from them.

The Bishnois are also waking up to the commercial potential of being involved in tourism as agents rather than objects of display. Pradeep takes us to a recently created Bishnoi tourist village built by his cousin, Arjun Bishnoi. The miniature resort is complete with four traditional mud huts constructed in Bishnoi style. However, it is equipped with modern amenities such as fans, plumbing and a dining hall, and also offers activities such as desert safaris and camel rides.

There is a definite attempt to amalgamate Western comforts with Bishnoi village aesthetics: a light bulb illuminates the huts' walls while sunshine-yellow dahlias bloom in the vicinity of the indigenous ker, whose fruit and stem are used for medicinal and culinary purposes. However, devotion to Bishnoi principles and the leader, Guru Jambeshwar, remains supreme, as is visible in the brightly-coloured posters of the guru.

"I was idle and owned this piece of land. I thought, ‘why shouldn't I use it to create an opportunity for tourists to have a first-hand Bishnoi-community experience?'" Arjun says while unlocking one of the huts made from locally available materials — stems of pearl-millet were used to make the roof thatching. Women of the village had painted traditional designs on the walls and interiors. Inside the hut, air-conditioners and modern plumbing shared space with a sheep-wool blanket, traditional wooden chests, carved wooden doors. A cow-bell formed part of the accent. "You need tourist-friendly amenities — how else will they stay?" he says, adding that the resort welcomes both foreign and domestic tourists.

A faith intact

We then visit Arjun's pucca house which is constructed with native Jodhpur sandstone and concrete rather than mud. There I meet his parents, two daughters and son.

I express my desire to meet his wife, who is otherwise in purdah (veiled); we leave the sitting room and cross the courtyard towards the verandah and main living rooms.

Arjun outlines the tenets of their faith, especially those which speak of protecting the environment and encouraging moral purity and physical hygiene. His wife shows us traditional Bishnoi jewellery.

I mention that I am Jain, belonging to a faith that also exhorts non-violence or ahimsa. Arjun nods vigorously: "Yes, like you, we abstain from consuming any intoxicant, such as alcohol, nicotine and opium, and are vegetarian. We feel sick at the thought of eating meat."

The Bishnoi faith predicates its beliefs on the perception that every organism in the world is in synergy with the other. "Many farmers view animals as being destructive; however, we allow the animals to freely wander through our fields. Yet we are prospering," he says.

Tradition and modernity coexist and resonate strongly in the Bishnois' daily life. Arjun points to a metal cage-like contraption which once served as an alternative to its modern avatar, the refrigerator.

Arjun's wife prepares rotis [traditional Indian bread] on the wood-fuelled hearth in the courtyard overlooking the verandah, where modern conveniences — TV, mobile and landline phones, alarm clocks and fridge — are kept. However, while his wife poses for a photograph, unveiled, she instantly veils herself in the presence of her in-laws.

"Modernisation has superficial effects on our lives; we will continue to follow and maintain our traditional values," Arjun states, adding that the community unites in the face of any threat to their beliefs, regardless of intra-community differences. He concedes that the impact of urbanisation on the environment will remain an increasing cause of concern.

"Of course, things are changing. Earlier, we used to keep up to [a] 100 camels but can no longer do so as camels need large spaces to graze and move around," he says, gesturing towards the lone camel sitting outside the house.

I mention the cement crushers that I saw earlier and Arjun shakes his head. "Yes, such developments worry us. The government does come and hear us out; however, it is also simultaneously hearing out the industrialists," he says.

The photographer, meanwhile, has to coax Arjun's daughters into posing; one studies in the tenth grade while the other is an eighth-grade student. "We believe that women should be educated; after all, an educated woman is in a better position to study, understand and impart religious teachings to her children," he says.

Bishnoi women have been both agents and participants in the often aggressive and determined efforts to uphold their spiritual leader's tenets.

"Our women do not remain in the house when the environment is being violated," Arjun says. "They, too, will rush out and participate in resisting the actions."

Such participation is most clearly reflected in the Khejarli Massacre, which occurred in the village of Khejarli in 1730. The Khejarli memorial and shrine bears testament to those 363 women, men and children who sacrificed their lives to prevent the khejari trees from being cut down at the behest of the ruler of Jodhpur, Maharaja Abhay Singh.

The memorial remembers and recognises the courage of Amrita Devi, the first person to resist and sacrifice her life for the trees. She acted as a human shield for the trees and uttered the words Sar santey rookh rahe to bhi sasto jaan (it is worth it if the trees are saved at the cost of one's life).

After other Bishnoi deaths followed, Maharaja Abhay Singh intervened to put an end to the slaughter and prohibited tree-felling and hunting on Bishnoi lands.

A cement-bound square of soil representing the spot where the bodies lay after the massacre rests below the spare grey memorial; the soil is sacred to the Bishnoi people. The memorial is adjacent to a whitewashed shrine and set in a compound full of trees.

The grounds are also the site for an annual Bishnoi community mela or celebration, which serves as an opportunity to discuss issues of relevance with the community as well as to recognise efforts by individuals to further the faith. "However, people come to pay obeisance at this shrine throughout the year," Pradeep says.

We return to Jodhpur through the Bishnoi lands, including that of Pradeep and his family; we see a group of chinkara peacefully ambling along the fields where women and men are busy preparing for the approaching monsoon.

"There is no fear for them here," he says, adding that Bishnoi women have been known to feed young chinkara which have lost their mothers, in a bid to save them.

The commitment of the Bishnois towards protecting the animals extends to taking the injured ones to the veterinary hospital in Jodhpur. "However, they are delicate and cannot take the stress of the journey and usually die soon after arrival," he says. "They recover in their natural environment here, though."

The moot question that arises is how long the Bishnoi community will be able to vigilantly and devotedly protect the environment in the face of encroachment and degradation from rampant urbanisation and industrialisation.

The Bishnoi people will have to perform the eternal balancing act of remaining committed to their beliefs while adapting to the negative changes wrought in their surrounding environment. However, it is clear that they will not allow their environment to suffer and species to become extinct as long as their own values and beliefs remain.


The Bishnoi community guru, Guru Jambeshwar, was born in the village of Pipasar in Rajasthan in 1451. At the age of 34, influenced by the impact of the prevailing drought in the land, he set out the tenets of the Bishnoi religion in poetic forms known as "shabadwani" at Samrathal Dhora in western Rajasthan.


The 29 tenets include those forbidding people from raising goats or sheep, as they will eventually have to be sold to the slaughterhouse. Bishnois do not discriminate between the visible and less visible, deeming each as significant and worthy of protection as the other. For example, only dead wood is permitted to be used as fuel; it is declared usable only when it has been carefully cleaned to avoid killing any possible termites living inside the wood. The Bishnois also bury their dead, rather than cremating them — the notion of killing a live tree to cremate a body is antithetical to Bishnoi belief. Bishnoi men are only permitted to wear white, symbolising moral purity and physical hygiene while women wear distinctively patterned "ghagras" (ankle-length skirts), bright veils and blouses, in hues of red and orange; this is to encourage uniformity in appearance. The Bishnois are converted Hindus and pray to the Hindu pantheon; however, they must perform ceremonies honouring their guru in the morning after bathing and during the evening.


The Khejarli Massacre of 1730 is a precursor to the famed Chipko movement that occurred in Uttarakhand, India, in the late Seventies, where peasants took to hugging ("chipko" meaning to hold close in Hindi) trees to prevent them from being felled; women played a significant role in this movement. "The Khejarli Massacre was mentioned in Colonel James Tod's famous 19th-century two-volume work on Rajasthan, ‘Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan'. However, subsequent Jodhpur rulers did their best to censor it from history because it showed their ancestors in a negative light," Pradeep says.

- Priyanka Sacheti is a journalist based in Muscat, Oman.