Environmentalism in 1778

Our journey through environmental history has so far taken us from medieval England to ancient India, the Roman Empire, and the Japanese Edo period.

bishnoiA painting of the 1778 Bishnoi massacre

Today we’re going to India in 1778 to cover a forest, a desert, and a tribe of environmentalists who literally laid down their lives to protect their environment.

You need some background information to fully appreciate the situation. Today’s event in environmental history takes place in what is today the western part of the India province of Rajasthan. In 1778 one of the largest cities in that part of the world was Jodhpur, controlled by the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Today, the city is known for its many beautiful palaces, as well as the blue paint common on many of the houses in the town. In 1778, the Maharaja was building one of those famous palaces. The construction project required many trees to burn lime, so he sent a senior official to the edge of Rajasthan’s Thar desert to cut down some of the region’s khejri for fuel.

Had this been any other part of the world the official would have logged the trees and returned to Jodhpur without incident. This wasn’t any area of the world though. The edge of the Thar desert was, and is, home to a Hindu sect known as the Bishnois.

The Bishnois were founded in the late 1400s by a man known as Jambaji. According to legend he received a vision that the problems in his area, which started with environmental problems, were caused by man’s interference with nature. This inspired him to lay down 29 principles (Bishnoi means 29) for his followers, including a ban on killing animals or felling live trees. Woodworking, however, is a common profession among the sect’s members. They wait for trees to die naturally or be toppled by storms, which makes it acceptable to use the gift provided by nature.

The Bishnois are fierce protectors of plant an animal life in their territory. They’ve been known to severely punish those caught hunting in their lands. The black buck deer is especially sacred, as Jambaji said the animal was his manifestation in his absence. Hunters caught in the area have been known to face punishments such as severe beatings or being stripped naked and left in the hot desert sun.

This reverence for nature, and the willingness to fight to protect it, led to the environmental incident in 1778 which we’re discussing today. As we mentioned, the Maharaja of Jodhpur had sent a representative to Bishnoi territory to cut down trees. Rather than let this happen, the Bishnoi stood to fight.

So far as history can tell us, it happened like this: Early one morning in 1778 a woman named Amrita Devi noticed strangers in the village of Khejarli. Seeing that the men were there to fell the sacred trees, she ran to stop them. They refused to stop, and she refused to let them continue. She then allegedly said: “If a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it.” She was then beheaded by the Maharaja’s men, followed by her three daughters who had also attempted to stop the tree felling.

The news of her martyrdom spread quickly among the Bishnoi. Soon a huge crowd had gathered from villages all over Bishnoi territory to oppose the logging. For every tree to be cut, a Bishnoi sacrificed their life to try and stop it. The Maharaja’s men laughed at the attempt, and slaughtered the Bishnoi along with the trees. By the time it was all over, 363 men, women, children and elderly Bishnoi had given their lives to try and protect their sacred forests.

When word of the massacre reached the Maharaja, he was shaken. He personally travelled to the region to apologize to the people, and issued a decree that no ruler could ever again ask for timber from their land and no hunting would be allowed near there villages. Though the office of Maharaja has long been obsolete, the ruling still stands as an unofficial law in Rajasthan.

The story stands as an example of the lengths some people will go to protect their Earth, which contrasts sharply with many of our efforts today. While it would be silly to suggest all environmentalists be willing to die for their cause, it should at least serve as an inspiration the next time you find it annoying or difficult to get to the recycling center, compost your garbage, or cut down on your energy use.

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