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Who are the Bishnoi, a community of vegetarian conservationists in India?

Among fallow deer and antelopes, Ghevar Ram tends to a wounded lark at the veterinary center in Khejarli, Rajasthan, established by the Indian Bishnoi religious community, which for more than five centuries has protected no matter what. at any cost, trees and animals.

Bishnoi himself, the 40-year-old dedicated his life to collecting and caring for animals in need until they were fully recovered before allowing them to regain their freedom. “I treat animals like my own children. This is what we have been taught since childhood“, the 45-year-old man explains to AFP while giving a bottle to a fawn.

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The Bishnoi, undoubtedly among the oldest conservationists, are ready to sacrifice their existence to come to the aid of a tree or an animal in danger. For them all life is sacred because their god lives in all life. This community of Vishnuite obedience, a stream of Hinduism, today has 1.5 million followers, subject to the 29 precepts (in Hindi “bis” means 20 and “noi” 9) adopted by its founder, the Guru Jambheshwar, in the 15th century.

Amrita Devi, Bishnoi icon who died a martyr

Spread mainly in the villages of the arid state of Rajasthan, the followers count Amrita Devi among their icons, this bishnoï killed in 1730 by opposing the slaughter of a khejri (Prosopis cineraria), a desert tree.

According to local history, a local lord sent men to Khejarli in search of wood to fuel the wood stoves to produce cement and lime to build his palace. On their arrival, these men, armed with axes, were busy felling one of the many khejri in the village, when Amrita rushed to embrace the trunk of the threatened tree and made a rampart with her body.

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Despite her pleas, the men did not stop. And when she surrounded the tree, the king’s men mercilessly cut down the tree and the head” of Amrita, says with emotion Sukhdev Godara, a retired teacher. The three daughters of Amrita, in turn, threw themselves on the trees to protect them before they suffered the same fate as their mother. A total of 363 men, Bishnoi women and children killed to come to the aid of the village trees.

Since then, Bishnoi has been accustomed to repeat his last words: “Better a severed head than a felled treeTheir sacrifice is now commemorated in the village by a cenotaph bearing the names of all these martyrs, surmounted by a statue resembling Amrita Devi.

Nurse orphans, save trees

Villager Sita Devi, a strict vegetarian like the entire community, feeds her cooking fire with cow dung patties instead of firewood to feed her family. Dressed in a traditional long pink skirt and glittering gold jewellery, this mother of seven says she nursed an orphaned fawn herself.

I was working in the fields when I saw this fawn being attacked by wild dogs“, she recalls,”I rescued him and took him home“.”I fed the fawn my own milk and when he regained his strength I released him back into the wild“, she says proudly.

The Bishnoi do not cremate their dead, as this would involve cutting down trees to feed the fire, but bury them. Farmers for the most part, they ensure that no animals are in danger on their land.

Lawyer Rampal Bhawad co-founded the Bishnoi Tiger Force, a strongly anti-poaching conservation organization, after learning that Bollywood superstar Salman Khan had killed two protected species of black antelope while shooting a film in Rajasthan in 1998 .Bishnoi followed the trial for 20 years. , until the actor was sentenced to five years in prison for violating the Wildlife Protection Act. But his sentence was later suspended on appeal as the star had just spent his first days behind bars.

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Since, “we file complaints with the police and pursue cases until the guilty are punished“, Me Bhawad explains to AFP. At the time of the fight against climate change, “we should plant more and more trees“, recalls the Bishnoi lawyer, “we should live in harmony with nature, be kind to all living beings“.

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