One fine morning, India woke up to the news of famous Bollywood stars involved in killing of the Black Buck and the Chinkara. With this news, the nation not only came to know about the two unique endangered animals but also about the protagonists for nature – the Bishnois. If not for the Bishnois and their reverence for nature, this incident would have never made it to the headlines. The nation took notice of this erstwhile peace loving tribal community that challenged the reigning stars and ensured that they were thrown behind the bars.
Bishnois have been cognizant of man’s relationship with nature and the importance to maintain its delicate balance. It is remarkable that these issues were thought about, half a century ago by Bishnoi visionaries. No other religious order has given this level of importance to environment value, protection and care.
National Forest Martyrs Day is observed in India on September 11 every year to commemorate the Khejarli massacre, which took place on September 11 in 1730. The Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India made the declaration in 2013 and since then, people across India observe National Forest Martyrs Day every year on September 11 to pay tributes to the valour and sacrifice made the forest personnel to protect the forests and wildlife of India.
THE KHEJARLI MASSACRE
There is a legend about a Bishnoi woman, Amrita Devi, who died trying to protect the trees that surrounded her village. The story recounts a time when the local Maharaja’s tree cutters arrived to cut the villager’s trees for wood for his new fortress. This incident is the first event of Chipko (Tree-hugging) Movement in the recorded history.
The Bishnois do not tolerate destruction of flora and fauna by unnatural means. They are very protective of their surroundings and are known to be violent in course of its protection. There is a saying that if you are a hunter, the worst thing that can happen to be caught by a Bishnoi while on Shikhar (hunting).
It was Tuesday, the 10th day of the bright fortnight of the month Bhaadrapad (as per Indian lunar calendar) or September 11, in 1730. Amrita Devi a mother of three daughters — Asu, Ratni and Bhagu was at home with her daughters. Suddenly, she came to know that many people had descended in their otherwise sleepy village of Khejarli.
It was a party of Giridhar Bhandari, a minister with Maharaja Abhay Singh, Ruler of Marwar (Jodhpur) state who wanted to fell the sacred green Khejri (Prosopis cineraria) trees to burn lime for the construction of his new palace. Since there was a lot of greenery in the Bishnoi villages even in the middle of Thar Desert, the king ordered his men to get the woods from Khejri trees.
Amrita Devi protested against the tree-felling because such acts were prohibited by the Bishnoi’s faith. Amrita Devi along with other Bishnoi men, women and children jumped in front of the trees and hugged them. The royal party said that they would only cease if she paid them a bribe, which she refused to do because she saw that as ignominious and an insult to her faith. She said:
सर सान्टे रूख रहे तो भी सस्तो जाण
In English, it means: If a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it.
Saying these, she offered her head. The axes, which were brought to cut the trees, severed her head from her trunk. The three young girls Asu, Ratni and Bhagu were not daunted, and offered their heads too. The news spread like wildfire.
News of the deaths spread and summons to a meeting were sent to 83 Bishnoi villages. The meeting determined that one Bishnoi volunteer would sacrifice their life for every tree that was cut down. Older people began hugging the trees that were intended to be cut and many were killed. These efforts failed to have the desired impact and Bhandari claimed that the Bishnois were sacrificing ageing people whom they no longer saw as useful to society. In response to this, young men, women and children began to follow the example of the old. The development shocked the tree-felling party. The group left for Jodhpur with their mission unfulfilled. 363 Bishnois died in the incident.
When Maharaja learned about the carnage, he was repentant and forbade any killing of animals and cutting of trees in the Bishnois territories. This legislation still exists today in the region. It’s no wonder that the Bishnois are considered as among the earliest conservationists in the world. Since the 15th century, the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan has been devoted to environmental protection.
To all those who stand tall to save our world and the environment, and those who have sacrificed their lives to protect the forests and wildlife across the remote corners of the country – Thank you, for everything you have done for us, we’re proud of you.