The Bishnois are a sect of Hinduism that take drastic measures to preserve and co-exist with the natural environment in which they reside. Primarily descendants of Jats, a caste of pastoralists from northern India and Pakistan, they have now settled in a number of small villages in the extremely dry Thar desert of Rajasthan.
The name Bishnoi means 29, representing the 29 principles put forth by the founder Guru Jambheshwar approximately 540 years ago. These include several eco-friendly restrictions that aim to protect the trees and wildlife of the region. The Guru believed that hurting the environment can be equated with hurting oneself. Today, most Bishnoi do not consume meat or alcohol, fell trees that are still alive, or burn wood that may have insects on it. They also practice humane husbandry of the cattle on which their livelihoods rely. Some Bishnoi women have even been known to breastfeed baby antelopes that have been lost from their mothers.
Bishnoi villages are also reputed for their all-night musical and dance performances of oral epics. Unlike the ancient epics of Europe, such as the Iliad and the
Odyssey, familiar mainly to academics, these 4000-plus-line epics are recited from memory by specialists who otherwise live normal lives, and all the locals are intimately familiar with the plots of the stories.
The best way for travelers to experience Bishnoi culture is with one of the guides based in Jodhpur, the famed Blue City of Rajasthan. My sister Leanne, Matt, and I booked a day tour through our hotel and set off after breakfast. The first stop our driver made was to pick up a large bag of leftover chapatis to hand out to stray dogs that we’d encounter on our journey.
Soon after our vehicle departed the city, we were bouncing along a sandy trail through the desert. Before long, our driver spotted a black buck, a type of antelope with horns that reach as long as 70 centimeters, and we disembarked to get a closer look on foot. Visitors to Bishnoi villages are almost guaranteed to spot wildlife. Fed and protected by the Bishnoi, animals such as blue bulls, chinkara gazelle, black buck, and desert fox are practically tame.
One of the main Bishnoi villages, Khejarli, was the site of the controversial 1730 sacrifice of 362 men, women and children. These Bishnoi gave their lives to save a grove of Khejri trees growing near their village when the Maharaja of Jodhpur sent men to cut them down. Hugging the trees, they were hacked to pieces. Today a memorial stands in the village in their honor.
Another interesting site in the region is the Om Bana Temple, which consists of a deified Enfield Bullet motorcycle. When a man from the local village crashed into a tree and died in the 1980s, it is said that the motorcycle miraculously found its way from the police station back to the crash site not once but twice. Today everybody that passes the shrine, located in the middle of the road, stops to offer bottles of liquor and tie red threads to the motorbike, ensure them a safe journey ahead. We didn’t make it to the shrine on our tour because it involved a long drive in the opposite direction from most of the Bishnoi villages. This was a tough decision
to make because Matt is a motorcycle enthusiast, but he is kind and let me choose.
After visiting a number of Bishnoi households, we pulled into a lot to experience the Bishnoi opium tea ceremony, which is performed to honor guests. After being seated, a man in a crisp white robe and turban brought out a complex contraption that looked like a miniature carved wooden temple. Pulling out a small baggie from his pocket, he showed us and let us smell a small hunk of opium blended with jagerary (palm sugar) before he placed it in a wooden bowl from the contraption, added some water, and then ground it into a broth. Next he poured the mixture into the strainer, producing a golden-colored tea.
Leanne and Matt politely declined, but I had to give it a try. Traditionally, the host will pour a mouthful into his cupped hands, offering it directly to the mouths of his guests. Mine was served to me in a little clay cup. Next the man packed a chillum, or simple Indian pipe with tobacco and smoked a few puffs
through a pocket of air made with his hands, then passed it our way. Offering him a tip for his services, we continued on to our next stop. I did not feel any buzz from the mild opium concoction; nevertheless it was an interesting and memorable experience to take part in this ancient custom.
Our final stop was in Salawas, a craft making village known for its dhurries, or traditional rugs. These colorful, flat-woven carpets are suitable for the Indian climate in that they are strong, easy to fold, and resistant to insects that eat other types of carpet. In Rajasthan they are frequently given as part of the dowry in marriage ceremonies, though most of the rugs made in Salawas are sold to tourists or exported.
I had no intention of doing any shopping on this trip, but after being given a demonstration of the traditional horizontal loom used to make the dhurries, I was inspired to purchase one of the rugs for my room at home. Next we were given a demonstration of the potter’s wheel. Though obviously performed solely
for tourists like us and not a real potter’s factory, it was still interesting to observe.
Before leaving, a mother and daughter prepared us a delicious meal, allowing us to enter the kitchen hut to observe their Rajasthan-style wood-fired cooking methods. Noting the hotel facilities on-site, I made a mental note to come back here and spend the night on my next visit to India. It didn’t hurt that the owner of the facilities also sported what was probably the best handlebar mustache I have ever seen! For more of my photos and travel stories, or to buy my book "Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner", visit www.nickkembel.com
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