Bishnoi (Rajasthan India)

If I had gone back to the Thar desert with a production / filming crew then I’d probably have stayed in a real village and unearthed genuine gems. Not to say Bishnoi is not a real village, they try very hard to portray the real life in a hamlet. But because this particular village was so focused on tourism I missed the earthiness. Am glad the other 39Bishnoi villages in India go about their daily lives without attracting the tourists! I was so not impressed by the number of tourists that were loitering about in this village as if strolling in their very own backyard. I was glad I was here just for the day.

The huts are a piece of art. Beautifully decorated with hand drawings on the exterior walls, old kitchen utensils hung over the clay oven fireplace adding another dimension of yore. Clean and nicely spread out, the walkabout had me reflecting over the shyness I witnessed from the women living inside the huts. They rarely stepped out in front of strangers, would curiously peek thru their fairy sized windows. I attempted to talk to them, they’d giggle and hide behind the clay walls but never afforded me answer.

In 1730 CE, 363 women had their heads cut off as the first "tree huggers" in recorded history. Bishnoi means the number 29 in Hindi, referring to the 29 principles by which their caste as farmers ethically conducts itself. Two of the rules require that each caste member is compelled to care for trees; the other is that they care for all animals. In 1730 the then Maharaja Abhay Singh, ruler of Jodhpur sent out his woodsmen to cut down trees to feed the palace fires. They arrived on Bishnoi lands with the intent on cutting down their trees. One by one the women of the village sat at the foot of a tree and wrapped her body and arms around the tree trunks. When the Maharaja was informed of this he instructed his troops to cut off their heads if they did not get out of the way; hence the massacre. The first head to roll was that of Amrita Devi; her martyrdom set the example for the remaining 362 women who were to die that day.

Only afterwards, apparently in a fit of guilt, did the Maharaja apologize and decree that forevermore trees on Bishnoi lands would remain safe. I goggled this for better understanding and I was glad to see that the Bishnoi sacrifice of the past is remembered and has become a part of a modern day movement to protect trees (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chipko_movement).

Bishnoi is the one place where opium is legit. The ritual of making opium tea is a practice of the community that goes back a thousand years. It is used on ceremonial occasions and maybe a little in the morning and evening. Opium use is against the law in India; but in yet another of our wonderful contradictions, an exception is made for a number of castes in Rajasthan where tradition trumps law. I happily had a little of this elixir and understand its addiction.

As part of the Bishnoi safari, we also visited a local potter who learned his skills as the hereditary function of his caste. He explained that all his forefathers were potters as would be his son. The pottery is still done in the traditional way. Clay is thrown onto a 100 kg wheel which is pivoted at the center and spun, using a stick, to a high speed. The weight of the wheel maintains the momentum required to turn several pieces from a single large piece of clay. I was privileged to be invited by them to try my hand at the wheel and was thrilled to bits that my first attempt turned out rather well or perhaps it was beginners luck:) I was so enamored by my own creation and can appreciate how Dali or Bresson would have felt with their creations!

On reaching the hotel I carefully wrapped this pot to ensure its safe journey homewards. The bubble burst when I opened the packet on reaching home and saw the shattered pieces of mud lying inside the wrappings. Damn Jet airways!