Thursday, 19 January 2012

Tree Huggers Beheaded: Radical Environmentalists

Terence Stone

Would you offer your head to save a tree? Extreme as it may seem, this is precisely what happened in the village of Khejadli, less than an hour’s ride from Jodhpur in Rajasthan, India. On our recent trip there my partner, Nancy, and I journeyed over the rough terrain of the Thar Desert to Khejadli whose history is little known in the rest of the world, but whose influence pervades environmental movements everywhere, whether you know it or not. Our journey took us back through time as we passed little hamlets of round huts with intricately woven roofs. Eventually we arrived at one of these immaculate round houses where healthy children and adults made us welcome and we heard the story of a courageous woman, Amrita Devi, and of the massacre that her sacrifice initiated.

The people of whom I speak are known as Bishnoi, from the Hindu bish or the number 20, and noi or the number 9, identifying them as people of the 29 tenets of religious faith by which they live. Bishnoism was founded in the late Fifteenth Century by Guru Jambheshwar. Four groups of tenets within the twenty nine cover personal hygiene, healthy social conduct, worship of God, and the preservation of biodiversity. In the latter group, two stand out as observable in the life surrounding every home and hamlet: be compassionate to all living beings; and do not cut green trees.

In 1730, by order of the Maharajah of Mawar in Jodhpur who required wood to burn in the building of his palace, a royal party under the leadership of Hakim set off into traditional Bishnoi territory to harvest the Khejri tree from which the village name was derived. On arriving, Amrita Devi stopped the party and told them they were forbidden from cutting the trees. Hakim laughed, but suggested a bribe might save the trees. Amrita refused on the basis that it would be shameful to engage in such a transaction. Hakim and his party then went to set about their work; but undeterred, Amrita blocked their way and offered herself in sacrifice to stop them: “If one tree is saved”, she said, “even at the cost of one’s head, it is worth it”. Hakim wasted no time with such impudence and beheaded her, witnessed by Amrita’s three young daughters.

Depiction of the massacre

Asu, Ratni, and Bhagu, perhaps inspired by the sacrifice of their mother then offered their own heads to save the trees. With little hesitation, Hakim and the royal party promptly beheaded them. Despite this terrible cost, the royal party proceeded to cut down the trees. In response, the elderly women and men of the village each went to a tree to hug it in protection, all to no avail. The cutters beheaded each of them before chopping down the tree which had been held for protection.

Hakim laughed and taunted the villagers that they were merely offering their elderly who were of no value. It was then that other villagers stepped forward—men, women, newlyweds, young people, and children--voluntarily took up the protective role of each hugging a tree until the axe took them too. Meanwhile, messengers had been dispatched to summon people from 83 other Bishnoi villages. At some point, Hakim and the party realized they had been defeated by the mayhem and carnage that would have continued. They hurriedly left the scene, destroyed trees left where they had fallen as they hurried back to Jodhpur--363 beheaded villagers lay amongst the broken trees.

We cannot know the heart of the Maharajah; but in a public show of regret, he issued an edict that from that time forth, no wood or animals would ever be taken from Bishnoi lands. Since then the names of Amrita Devi and her daughters, Asu, Ratni, and Bhagu have been honoured as the very spirit of the Bishnoi faith in practice. The Bishnoi people to this day are fiercely protective of trees, animals and biodiversity. They live in harmony and remarkable health, working extremely marginal lands; and many other people across India have taken up environmental causes in the emulated spirit of the Bishnoi. And just as we cannot know the heart of the Maharajah, we cannot know the participation mystery and practical relationship the Bishnoi understand and viscerally feel in their relationship to the trees.

In an online interview I listened to a Bishnoi man speaking with passionate energy: "These trees are our lives! These trees they are our everything!" I think the Bishnoi know something we all ought to know. How do we get back to the garden?

The Chipko (From the Hindu “to cling to”) Andolan (Movement), had its first taproot in the Khejrali Massacre. In 1973 the Movement’s name rose to public prominence in the efforts of, primarily of women, activists who mobilized to halt the deforestation of the Himalayas. Since then the movement has spread across India. Always beginning with local women’s activism, but often joined by men. Now, just like the taproot of the Khejri tree the movement is deep and secure in the desert-like soul of industrial logging.

Women of the Chipko Andolan

So when you hear the term “Tree Huggers”, disparagingly, or as a term of approbation, remember that its origins came from courageous people across India who began their radical resistance 500 years ago on the formation of their faith and are more active today than our passionate, but small protests, here in Canada and the USA.

Bishnoi house: always immaculate

Before we left our Bishnoi hosts, I asked through our interpreter how they felt about the sacrifice that their ancestors made 300 years ago. The older man consulted with his family for a while and then said, his head hung, “We failed [to save those trees]”. Following our family visit, we spent time in silent reflection in the Khejrali garden memorial to the 363 martyrs, wandering amongst the 363 Khejri trees planted in memoriam.

Massacre memorial

Please assist in preventing logging of old growth forest on Cortez Island. Visit the Ancient Forest Alliance website and see the beauty that is at stake. We don't need to lose our heads over it; but your signature would be appreciated.  

Khejri Tree

Khejri tree

Known as the “Golden Tree” is also the state tree of Rajasthan, it prefers extremes of temperatures and can survive as an evergreen in the most arid of conditions. Propagation is by seeds in moister conditions, but mostly by sending out suckers. It root system goes down 30 metres, and so the tree does not compete for moisture with agriculture. In fact, its shade helps retain surface moisture for crops and is a valuable source of organic decomposition. The root system also stabilizes sandy soils and acts as a windbreak and shelter for humans, animals and crops, as well as being a nitrogen fixer.

The leaves and seedpods have a very high nutritive value, and so are a valuable source for animal fodder. The pods are sweet and prized for human consumption.

Medicinally this tree is a veritable pharmacopeia: The bark provides immediate relief for snake and scorpion bites; different parts of it are used in the treatment of asthma, leprosy, dysentery, bronchitis, tremors, nervous disorders, worm infections, many skin problems; the gum is highly nutritive and is used by pregnant women to ease delivery.

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