Our search for the Bishnois by Bonny Shah

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1999:

Texas-based animal advocates
Bonny and Ratilal Shah on Christmas Day
1998 took time out from working on other
humane projects in India to visit two Bishnois
villages in the Rajasthan desert.
Valmik Thapar, executive director
of the Ranthambore Foundation, described
the Bishnoi in his 1997 book Land of the Tiger
as “the primary reason that desert wildlife still
exists on the subcontinent. The women of the
community have been known to breastfeed
black buck fawns and save insect life, while
many of the men have died in their efforts to
counter armed poaching gangs.

“Bishnoi is an offshoot of Jainism,”
Thapar continued, “which teaches that all
nature’s creations have a right to life. This
belief reached its apotheosis in 1778 when 294
men and 69 women laid down their lives to
protect the khejri tree. A senior officer of
Jodhpur state arrived to cut down the trees,
which were needed for burning lime. The first
to challenge him was a woman, who hugged
one of the trees and was promptly decapitated.
Her three daughters followed suit and were
also axed. Many others followed. This mass
slaughter led to a royal order that prohibited
the cutting of any tree in a Bishnoi village.”
Leaving Jodhpur early in the morning,
we drove about 30 miles to Dhava. The
paved main road was covered with flocks of
ringnecked doves, peacocks, and pea hens.
From Dhava, we turned into the bush on an
unmarked dirt road, passing camels who
browsed giraffe-like among the acacia trees.
Acacias, which resemble mesquite, were the
only trees around. Some were quite tall.
We picked up a village man who
needed a ride. He showed us where some of
the Bishnoi homes were. As we approached
one cluster of homes, we saw large herds of
endangered blackbucks just yards away from
domestic camels. Blackbucks and camels surrounded
both villages we visited.
Only women and children were in
the first village. The men were out in the
fields, cultivating mustard seed and a few
native grains that need little water. Their staple
crop is bajara grain, made into flour. We
had bajara rotlas (bread) for lunch.
Wild birds were everywhere, flying
around the huts as if they were bird-feeders.
Several related families live together in each
cluster of huts, with about 10 people per
house. The whole human population of the
area was about 2,000, the Bishnoi told us.
All Bishnoi are originally from
Rajasthan, but after the slaughter of the treehugging
Bishnoi there came a great famine,
and many moved to the Punjab. Once a year,
they reunite to celebrate their existence. All
the Bishnoi men wear white turbans and dhoti
(shirts). They say that 300 years ago they not
only lived together, but shared all wealth.
This is no longer done. They help each other,
but personal wealth is now separate.
There are 240 castes of Bishnoi.
The elders we spoke to emphatically insisted
they are not related to Jains, and that it is only
coincidence that their philosophy overlaps.
They pointed out with great pride that they live
their religion daily, while many Jains do not.
The Bishnoi do not allow their dogs
to kill the wild animals, they explained, especially
the blackbucks. They told us they tie the
dogs’ feet for a day and shun them if they
chase the deer. We saw many dogs with their
paws crossed, one over the other, as they
relaxed, a posture which might have been
learned from being tied. Unlike in other
Indian villages, the dogs do not bark and carry
on. Neither do they run around. They are
calm, even with the deer very close.
Cats are well taken care of, and the
Bishnoi appreciate that they kill snakes and
rats who eat their grain. They feed the cats
yogurt and milk.
The Bishnoi keep water buffalo as a
source of milk, but only breed the animals
they need. They do not sell dairy products,
and do not raise sheep or goats for slaughter.
While Hindus cremate their dead,
Bishnoi dead are buried in unmarked desert
graves among shrubs and trees, wrapped in
plain cotton––more like the Muslim custom.
The Bishnoi we met have no electricity.
The government has mentioned bringing
them solar-powered lighting, so that their
children can study after dark.
We asked them what other village
improvements they most wanted. Overwhelmingly,
they wanted a water pipe from
Dhava, five miles away, as the underground
water where they are is too salty to drink.
Beyond that, they wanted funding to
help them fight poachers in court.

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