|Painting of the massacre of Bishnois in 1730|
The term tree-hugger in North America is generally used in a pejorative sense, to refer to a wolly-headed, idealistic hippie who is not connected to “reality.”
But tree-hugging has a long history, as a way of protecting the environment, as a protest against political exploitation and as an expression of cultural and spiritual values.
In 1730, the King of Jodhpur, a desert-like region in the North-West of India in the state of Rajasthan, required wood for the construction of a new palace. He ordered his soldiers to collect wood from a region where Bishnois, a rural people, lived.
One of the Bishnois, a woman named Amrita devi, could not bear to witness the destruction of both her faith and the village's sacred trees. In an expression of non-violent resistance, she hugged a tree, and encouraged others to do so too, proclaiming: “A chopped head is cheaper than a felled tree.”
As each villager hugged a tree, refusing to let go, they were beheaded by the soldiers. It is said that 363 Bishnoi villagers were killed in the name of their sacred forest.
When the King was informed about this atrocity he rushed to the village and apologized, ordering the soldiers to cease logging operations.
In 1973, the mountainous Himalayan region of India was the scene of another widespread episode of tree-hugging. Called the Chipko (stick) movement, it went on to become a rallying point for many environmental movements all around the world. In many parts of the developing world, parcels of forests were, and still are, being sold off to companies for clear-cutting. As with the Bishnois, the Chipko movement had many female leaders. At first, several small confrontations between villagers and loggers from companies happened.
But the flash point occurred in January 1974, when the government announced anther auction. This incited the villagers, who decided to protest against the actions of the government by hugging the trees. On March 25, 1974, the day the lumbermen were to cut the trees, the men were diverted by state government and contractors to a fictional compensation payment site, while back home labourers arrived by the truckload to start logging operations.
|Chipko women defending trees|
A local girl, on seeing them, rushed to inform Gaura Devi, the head of the village’s women’s association Gaura Devi led 27 of the village women to the site and confronted the loggers. When all talking failed, and the loggers started to shout and abuse the women, threatening them with guns, the women resorted to hugging the trees to stop them from being felled. This went on into late hours. The women kept an all-night vigil guarding their trees from the cutters until a few of them relented and left the village. The next day, when the men and leaders returned, the news of the movement spread to neighboring districts and more people joined in. Eventually, only after a four-day stand-off, the contractors left.
The news soon reached the state capital, where the state Chief Minister eventually ruled in favour of the villagers. This became a turning point in the history of eco-development struggles in the region and around the world, and from here, tree-hugging spread to other areas around the world, including North America.
While tree-hugging is seen as an ecological movement in the west, the roots are actually spiritual. The Bishnois are followers of the Guru Jambeshwar Bhagavan, born in 1451, who taught twenty-nine principles which emphasized cleanliness, truthfulness, devotion to God and compassion for all living things, including trees and animals. Their beliefs have led to a remarkable community. Bishnoi carpenters never cut trees--they wait for trees to die on their own or fall down during storms. They dig small ponds in their fields and fill them with water for wildlife during the arid summer months. Even if their standing crop is eaten by deer herds, no Bishnoi ever chases a deer away. They are great protectors of wildlife and consider it a great pride to be able to die saving trees or animals. Unsurprisingly, Bishnoi areas are oases of trees, wildlife and water in an otherwise forbidding landscape.
|A Bishnoi girl|
"We would willingly go hungry to feed the animals," says Bana Ram, in an interview with Anupama Bhattacharya[i]. "We believe in the co-existence of life. Our guru said that those who die saving innocent animals or trees will go to heaven. For us, animals are the avatars of divinity."
"Our guru forbade us to get addicted, be it smoking, tobacco chewing, drugs or alcohol. Even tea is considered a vice," says Teja Ram.
"What makes me proud," says Bana Ram, "is that the next generation is even more committed to nature than we are." As if on cue, a little boy who can hardly keep pace as we walk around the village, tugs at my sleeve and says: "I'll never let anybody kill these animals."
Living amidst the barren wastelands interspersed with khejri and babool trees, the Bishnois are a proud race. "We don't get any help from the government and don't want any," says Johra Ram. "Any change in the world has to begin within the society. All this talk about nature and wildlife protection would be more effective if each individual was to believe in the earth as a living, breathing entity and fight for its survival the way we do."