The number of cows grows exponentially as I traverse the rocky, dirt road. Perhaps they know they are near a safe space. This is a place where, for the last half millennia, people have lived in communion with nature. Now it’s my turn to experience a lifestyle many consider only a contemporary idea.
The Bishnoi, a sect of Hinduism founded by Guru Jambheshwar nearly 600 years ago, holds nature in the highest regard. They do so, even in a society where the notion of reincarnation pervades every action. While Hinduism in India requires respect for every animal, human or otherwise, rarely does it reach the extent the Bishnoi practice. Jambheshwar prescribed 29 tenets to preserve the biodiversity of the area and create a sustainable, eco-friendly lifestyle. These extend down to the color of clothes they wear. The Bishnoi abstain from blue colors, as the dyes required destroy large quantities of plants.
The Bishnoi live in one of Rajasthan’s largest preserves. It is not uncommon for migrating birds, panthers, leopards and deer to frequent the area. Outside of here, Rajasthan is an area rife with tourist destinations and their accompanying hawkers. After some time it becomes impossible to distinguish the sincere from the disingenuous. In the Bishnoi village, though, there is no pretense or bit of ulterior motive. While not all families are as welcoming (in fact many discourage opening their doors to visitors) my hosts were gracious. Not only was this a step back in time, it was a vision of how sustainable life can be.
As they have done for centuries, the head of the household welcomed me with a traditional tea ceremony. The locally grown opium is strange at first but I’m assured there is little to no effect on the body. Sitting down and watching the intricate straining process, facilitated by a unique contraption made of wood, makes a Chinese tea ceremony look like child’s play. With reverence to nature, he offers the earth and Shiva the first drink. I’m then sipping tea directly from his hand.
In sitting down and speaking with the family, I’m taken aback by a sense of continuity between generations. There is a true lineage here, extending right down to the teenage son of my host. Across from us in the courtyard, the women of the house are busy separating grains to make the ubiquitous chapatti. Soon they will fire it using pressed cow manure and an open flame.
What I’m most curious about, though, is the colorful painting hanging in the center of the room. It depicts a man with an axe in full swing towards a tree. People clasp hands around the tree, protecting it from ultimate demise. My host picks up on my gaze and proceeds to explain the story. Commonly known as the Khejarli Massacre, it depicts the 1730 incident where 363 Bishnoi were killed in their attempts to save local trees. Maharajah Abhay Singh sought wood to build his new palace but Bishnoi villagers refused to allow this, considering it an affront to their religion and way of life. Each September Bishnoi gather near Jodhpur to commemorate this sacrifice.
I can’t help but think of the Pennsylvania Amish when I look at the Bishnoi. In reality, though, there is little comparatively between the two. Sure, both live as if in a bygone era but the Bishnoi are different. Their lifestyle and palpable admiration for the greatness of nature are infectious. The fact that they are so willing to lay down their lives makes them environmental renegades along the lines of Greenpeace activists today. They serve as an example of sustainability’s long-term potential and how one group of people can do immense amounts of good.