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Bishnoi villagers sacrifice lives to save trees, 1730
The Bishnoi faith is a religious offshoot of Hinduism founded on 29 principles, most of which promote environmental stewardship. Bishnois strictly forbid the harming of trees and animals. The religion was founded by Guru Maharaj Jambaji in 1485 AD in the Marwar (Jodhpur) desert region of western Rajasthan, India. Jambaji witnessed the incessant clear-cutting of trees during times of drought to feed animals, only to see them die eventually as the drought continued. He also recognized the importance of trees within his local ecosystem (keeping animals alive) and banned cutting down green trees and killing birds or animals. Jambaji's spiritual reverence for nature led to a tradition of harmony with the local ecology: in the middle of an arid desert region, the Bishnois are famous for cultivating lush vegetation, caring for animals, and collecting drinkable water.
In 1730, almost 300 years after Guru Jambaji's 29 principles were recorded, the maharajah (king) of Jodhpur wanted to build a new palace. He sent soldiers to gather wood from the forest region near the village of Khejarli, where Bishnoi villagers had helped foster an abundance of khejri (acacia) trees. When the king's men began to harm the trees, the Bishnois protested in anguish but were ignored by the soldiers, who were under royal orders.
Amrita Devi was a female villager who could not bear to witness the destruction of both her faith and the village's sacred trees. She decided to literally hug the trees, and encouraged others to do so too, proclaiming: “A chopped head is cheaper than a felled tree.” Bishnois from Khejri and nearby villages came to the forest and embraced the trees one by one to protect them from being cut down. As each villager hugged a tree, refusing to let go, they were beheaded by the soldiers. This voluntary martyrdom continued until 363 Bishnoi villagers were killed in the name of the sacred Khejarli forest.
Once word got back to the King about this activity he rushed to the village and apologized, ordering the soldiers to cease logging operations. Soon afterwards, the maharajah designated the Bishnoi state as a protected area, forbidding harm to trees and animals. This legislation still exists today in the region.
In memory of the 363 Bishnois, who died protecting their dear trees, a number of khejri trees are planted around the area, which is still notably lush and rich with animal life. The Bishnoi sacrifices became the inspiration for a much larger Chipko movement that is still growing today, in which villagers physically embrace trees to save them from logging.