Bishnoi: World’s only community to follow ‘eco-religion’ founded in 15th century

In this award-winning photograph by Himanshu Vyas from Hindustan Times that won IFRA Gold Award for News Photography, a Bishnoi woman is suckling a fawn.

For centuries, the Bishnoi have sworn by the preservation of plants and animals. Some have even lost their lives to defend this cause. Today, the textile industry in Rajasthan is threatening their future.

“To lose one’s head is better than to lose a tree,” according to a Bishnoi proverb.

The “eco-religion” was founded in the 15th century, when a farmer, who is now known as Guru Jambheshwar, retreated after a long drought and formulated 29 tenets according to which the farmers of the Thar Desert region should live their lives.

The word bis means 20, whereas noi means nine. The tenets revolve around personal hygiene, basic health, social behavior, the worship of God, biodiversity and good animal husbandry. They include a ban on the felling of green trees.

“The Bishnoi are a caste within the Hindu caste system,” explains Dr Pankaj Jain from the University of Texas. “They are strict vegetarians and do not kill living beings. Nature is holy to them.”

However, the lives of the half million or so Bishnois who live in India’s western state of Rajasthan are currently under threat.

The hundreds of small and medium-sized textile companies in the city of Jodhpur have polluted the Loni River, which is essential for keeping the sacred forest of Khejarli green and allowing the wild animals that are central to the Bishnois’ beliefs to graze.

“Nothing grows here anymore,” complains Balaram Bishnoi, a farmer from the village of Doli. “The land is dead. I had vegetables, crops and sesame – all kinds of things. Now not even grass grows anymore. The land has dried out completely.”

He and several other farmers have filed a suit against the region’s textile industry and are currently awaiting a verdict.

Read the full article in DW: India’s first environmentalists continue the struggle

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