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Rajasthan’s Oldest Environment Activists
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Rajasthan’s Oldest Environment Activists

Rajasthans Oldest Environment Activists

From 1600 CE, there are many instances where Bishnoi men or women have died to protect other living beings.

Shyam Lal Bishinoi, a 28-year-old man, was born in Khejarli, Rajasthan. He followed his father’s footsteps in ecological conservation and has committed his life to his father and mentor’s teachings. Ghewaram was also a villager who established a rescue centre for stray animals. He has vowed to protect the wildlife there.

Shyam Lal hosts weekly gatherings to teach children that appreciation of nature is the first step in caring for it. He teaches how to properly dispose of waste containers and how to recycle, reuse, and reduce. To support their local animal shelter and report any cruelty to animals or trees.

“A Bishnoi gives his life to protect wildlife from poachers, and our women look after orphan fawns and even feed it milk along with their own child,” he tells The Citizen.

Shyam Lal and Ghewaram discuss September 1730’s Khejarli massacre, in which 363 Bishnois died while protecting a Khejri grove. This campaign had a lasting impact on political ecology and is often referred to as the precursor of the Chipko movement in the 1970s.

They tell the story. The Maharaja was sending his men to Khejarli in order to have timber for his new palace. Amrita Devi, a brave Bishnoi woman, discovered the impending order and raced to Khejarli where Khejri trees were abundant. She confronted the royal troops.

Amrita Devi, accompanied by her family and neighbours tried her best to stop soldiers from cutting down the trees in large quantities. After all other options had failed, she hugged the tree that was being felled to save it.

The troops decapitated the woman, whose last words, sar saanthe runkh reho to bhi sasto jaan, if a tree is spared at the expense of one’s life it is worth it, are now legacy.

Amrita Devi, an environmental savior, was a brave lady from Khejarli, Rajasthan. She gave her life with her three daughters, Asu Ratni, Bhagu and Bhagu on the altar to Bishnoi Dharma in 1730.

Amrita Devi’s long and distinguished history in the Bishnoi community is a testament to her greatness. To commemorate her eternal sacrifice, a Khejarli fair is held each year on the anniversary her martyrdom.

Each year, the governments of Madhya Pradesh (and Rajasthan) present a prestigious state-level Amrita Devishnoi Smriti award to recognize outstanding contributions to wildlife conservation and protection.

Shyam Lal, and Ghewaram say that there are documented cases of Bishnoi women and men dying to protect other living creatures. The Bishnoi are dedicated to protecting the environment and natural lives.

They believe Guru Jambeshwar was a Rajput leader from Marwar, western Rajasthan who established the Bishnoi lineage. He gave 29 commands that must be kept by a Bishnoi until their death. The most important of these are about protecting and respecting all living things. The Bishnoi must provide shelter for abandoned animals, prohibit them from cutting down trees, and promote resource-sharing among the fauna.

They now say that their way of living is a mix of traditional and modern practices. Despite threats to their safety, Bishnoi activists continue their work in desert without fear.

During my visit I found the community indicate that the Bishnois wrath against “poaching” extends beyond the corridors of a religious vision. They have a warm relationship to non-human animal and share their fields, homes, sacred areas, and sometimes take care of injured birds or other animals.


The khejri trees are an important source for food

“Every living creature has the right to exist peacefully,” says Shyam Lal Bishnoi. “Other communities must absorb and practise the teachings in environmental commitment, so the earth will truly be inhabited by environmentally conscious people.”

He stated that although the species is listed as endangered under the First Schedule to the Wildlife Protection Act it has seen an increase in poaching.

The chinkara is a globally endangered gazelle that was once widely distributed in India. It is now under threat from the growing human population, mechanised farming, and people who hunt trophies or use it as a delicacy.

Shyam Lal describes how some poachers believe that it is acceptable to kill animals for pleasure and that their lives have no meaning. He mentions that urbanization and industrial growth pose other risks to habitat.

Discouraged by the hunters’ attacks, Bishnoi activists in western Rajasthan have created a strong communication network and stage anti-poaching protests regularly to question the link between law, justice and democracy.

Kapil Chandrawal describes the Jaisalmer forest’s deputy conservator. He also describes the chinkaras as well as other animals that are subject to wildlife rescue, treatment, and conservation centres run by locals.

“The villagers’ effort to rescue and safeguard its species is remarkable, and they play a big hand in its protection. This practice has been ongoing for centuries. The locals fear this sect,” says Chandrawal.

A few of the village’s rescue centers are run by local residents, where injured deer, Nilgai infants, rabbits, peacocks and other species are brought in. After being treated, they are returned to their village grasslands.


Ghewaram Lal and Shyam Lal describe global warming as the greatest threat to modern humans and the natural realm. They explain how they constructed ponds to house these animals. However, with global warming causing an increase in the surface temperature, water scarcity can sometimes occur due to evaporation.

They express concern at the fact that humans have wiped out 68% of global wildlife populations in just 40–50 years, and that 90% of us breathe harmful air.

“Only we are the key to a better life and a healthy planet, it all begins with us, and only we together can transform our future,” they tell The Citizen, emphasising that human activities are the primary cause of global warming.

Despite the hardships they endured during the pandemic, Ghewaram, Shyam Lal and their cattle, Shyam Lel Bishnoi, say that they have continued to manage the Khejarli rescue centre despite the difficulties.

“The future is in our hands, we need to act decisively because nature is our biggest and most valuable ally.” The message this pioneering ecologist community has for the country’s other citizens.

Photographs: Swapnil Mittal

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