Rajasthan, the land of kings and royalty, has been a mesmerising experience for me during my stay in India. The Western desert state of the Indian Union is vibrant, and exotic where tradition and royal glory meet in a riot of colors against the vast backdrop of sand and desert. It has an unusual diversity in its entire forms- people, customs, culture, costumes, music, manners, dialects and cuisine.. The landscape is dotted with invincible forts, magnificent palace havelis, rich culture and heritage, beauty and natural resources. It is a land rich in music, Dance, Art & Craft and Adventure, a land that never ceases to intrigue & enchant.
We in the Indian Army, visited Rajasthan mainly during operational deployments on the border, artillery field firing practices and various tactical exercises. One has seen the state progressing and developing in all fields – education, social matters, communication infrastructure, industrial output, exploitation of natural resources, etc. However two features will ever remain in my memory.
While media and scholars have celebrated Indian women environmentalists and activists such as Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy, you may not have herd of Imarti Devi and Begu Bai of Khejarli (Barmer District), the first proponent of Indian ecofeminism. They led a massive sacrifice for the protection of trees in February 1730 in Jodhpur. More than 300 Bishnoi men and women, sacrificed their lives to protect the trees from the soldiers of the king Abhay Singh of Jodhpur, who wanted to fell the trees to treat the lime stones for constructing his palace. The dead were buried, not cremated and there is a temple at that site.
All of you must be familiar with the episode of, Salman Khan’s shikar of deer in Rajasthan. Salman Khan together with friends undertook a hunting excursion in Rajasthan. In doing so they rushed blackbucks until their exhaustion, shot endangered and strictly protected animals. The locals protested and the actor with his entire entourage was put behind the bars.
These people are the Bishnois of Rajasthan. They are seen as an example by the global environment community for their deep devotion to conservation of nature. The Bishnoi sect was founded by Lord Jambheshwar believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver, and is probably the only religion in the world that’s based on principles of conservation. Legend has it that Jambheshwar, born into the warrior clan of Rajputs but chose a different life. Instead of developing hunting skills, he learned to communicate with living beings. He came up with the 29 principles that would govern the lives of his many followers, who would be called Bishnois — derived from ‘bees’ and ‘noi’, which means 20 and nine.
Here are some of the unique Bishnoi practices that show how their lifestyles are in a complete fit with their environment: Bishnois do not cut trees; instead they use dried cow dung as fuel. They do not cremate their dead as Hindus normally do, because it involves the use of firewood; instead, they bury them. Agriculture is the mainstay of the people; they also carve wood during the time they are not busy on their fields. The required wood comes from trees that have fallen during storms. Each Bishnoi family creates a tank in their field to provide water for black bucks and antelopes in the arid summer months. They maintain groves for the animals to graze and birds to feed. Solar energy is used to extract underground water to irrigate the groves. The region where they live is a desert, and these groves help to recharge rain water in the aquifers in the desert.
Not only do the Bishnois protect the deer from poachers, they also allow them to graze freely on their farmlands. It’s the belief of every Bishnoi that the first right to the harvest goes to the deer. Many Bishnoi temples doubles up as rescue shelters and the priests take care of injured animals. Some of these go back into the wild after they recover, while others roam about in the compound.
Many Bishnois believe that their fore-fathers take rebirth as deer and that is why many are attached to these animals. The Bishnoi women have deep maternal affection for the rescued fawns. It is not uncommon for a Bishnoi woman to breastfeed a newly born, orphaned fawns..
Adapting to the modern times, the Bishnois have become ‘active conservators’ pursuing poachers and capturing them to be handed them over to the forest authorities. They now have what they call the Tiger Force, a 1000-strong brigade committed to wildlife protection, spread across hundreds of villages. The Tiger Force came into the spotlight when they chased and caught Salman Khan and his gang red-handed with the blackbucks they had killed.
Prior to induction into Rajasthan, all troops of the Indian Army are made well aware of the sentimentality of the Bishnois to the wildlife and the trees. All out efforts are made by the Army to provide all assistance to the locals in their conservation efforts.
During one of my area familiarisation trips in the Rajasthan borders, I stopped at a Border Security Force Headquarters for lunch. There I met a frail and old man – may be in his late eighties. The company commander introduced him to me as a “Khoji”.- the tracker Every day at sunrise, the ‘khoji’, diligently examines a stretch of sand running alongside the wire- fencing border with Pakistan, for any tell tale signs of infiltration. The slightest indentation or disturbance in the sand raises the alarm for the tracker. It tells him whether any human or animal has crossed the three-tiered barbed wire fence.
He utilises his uncanny ability, which includes recognising the footprints of individuals camels, cows, goats or sheep from amongst hundreds of others to track them down, however far they may have strayed into the desert wasteland. One glance at a broken twig, a bent blade of dried grass or even the hint of a footprint in the sand are all that he requires to catch his “prey”. For the Khoji, eEach footprint has subtle but distinct differences which only a Khoji’s trained eye can spot.
He even predicts as to the type of animal that crossed, the weight on its back, the direction where the animal is headed to, and also the likely place it would have reached by then. The Khojis learn their craft as children by tracking camels, sheep and cattle which stray far from home in search of food across the vast desert. It’s instinctive and the ability to successfully pinpoint footprints increases with experience. And, unlike other professions in tribal, superstitious and caste-ridden Rajasthan, the Khoji’s do not belong to any one community. They also worship no deity or special Gods.
The Khoji’s are employed exclusively by the BSF which have around 100 of them in the desert districts of Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat state, where they monitor the 1,500 km long sandy stretch of border with Pakistan for smugglers and illegal aliens. An asset to each BSF battalion, their services are also called upon by the local police to track down criminals or missing livestock. They also organise tracking courses for BSF personnel.
Their rivals in Pakistan, known as Pugees, are similarly employed by the Ranger border guards. But over the past years, fencing and flood lighting of the Rajasthan border has greatly reduced the Khoji’s work load. Earlier, they not only tracked illegal immigrants and smugglers but also herds of cattle, camels and sheep which frequently strayed across the open border.
I was astonished by the capability of these Khojis and many a times we employed them to track down infiltrators which our modern radar systems and the supersensitive cameras of the drones could not identify, mainly due to the lie of the sand dunes in the deserts.