The desert folk of Bishnoi
Veg: Mister Otte, you have been living with the Bishnoi in India for a long time. How did this come about?
Hans-Jürgen Otte: In 1990, I saw a report about people living in harmony with animals, the nature and fellow men in the desert. I had the possibility to meet the producer on enquiry at the television station. I evinced him that I would like to live with these people and he immediately named the conditions: "Basic requirement: no addictive drugs and you have to be vegetarian." Thus, I travelled to Delhi and the camera crew took me to the Bishnoi-village in the middle of the Thar Desert. They intended to pick me up four weeks later. I was placed outside of the village – as a silent observer in a manner of speaking. As they arrived four weeks later I did not want to go back with them yet. "Well, we will come back in three months again." They came as agreed. But it was hard for me to part with these simple and ethnically superior people. As I re-entered the land of my old world and as I had to live my old life again I suffered from a kind of cultural shock. I did it for the sake of friends and certain obligations and particularly to put my experiences across. In doing so I met many interested, open-hearted people and quite a few became vegetarian due to my reports.
Veg: You wrote a book with the title: "People dieing to save trees and animals". Is this not a bit exaggerated?
Hans-Jürgen Otte: You can read in my book for example that more than 360 people had to give their lives as the maharajah wanted to fell trees for his new palace in the semi-desert. Trees have a great meaning for the Bishnoi. They love and adore them as coequal creatures which compass only good things; trees give shadow, they keep water from rapid evaporation and their leaves serve the cows as nutrition. First, a woman clung to a tree and shouted: "No, first you have to decollate me if you want to fell these trees." And that way it happened. More and more children and men followed the brave act of this woman until 360 Bishnoi have been killed and the order was given to stop with the killing of these people. It is almost unbelievable how they plead for the nature and how they let themselves killed for the live of the trees. The maharajah was so impressed by the stance of the Bishnoi that it was not allowed to fell a tree or to kill an animal in their livings space any more. This applies until today. If still a group of hunters arrives in their territory they place in front of the animals and prefer to be killed before they allow that an animal will be killed. I think this respect for animals and plants is fascinating and it is a pity that barely anybody knows about this. We should take this as an approach: to fight for nature and animals.
"For more than 500 years, a tribe has been living in the desert Thar in the north-west of India. The family members of this tribe are ready to defend the world of animals and plants in this paltry region with their own life.
They would rather die of hunger if they could therefore feed their animals. Because they think that all life-forms have their same rights."
Veg: Could you tell us something about the life of Bishnoi?
Hans-Jürgen Otte: There was no electric light or running water. The Bishnoi live almost this way we live some hundred years ago. Their predominantly activities are to fetch water and to procure fire material. In doing so, they do not cut any branch but collect only those which were fallen down. They also use the dung of cows as fire material. First of all they cultivate millet and maize. They exchange the milk they got from the animals. They transport these milk cans on camels and then with a slow train to distant customers. The milk keeps fresh as the nights are very cold in the desert, about 2-3 degree. An order is attached to the delivery for which they want to exchange the milk. So, they need perhaps glasses or clothing or something similar. After approximately one week somebody brings the desired goods or hangs it in the morning in a bag on a hook at the train where the milk cans were fixed before.
Veg: So, the Bishnoi use no money?
Hans-Jürgen Otte: No, they just exchange. Milk for other things. For what should they use money there? You can buy nothing. There is not even a store. Therefore, no tourists shall drive there. The Bishnoi want to live for them and this is good as it is. The cultural history has shown again and again that our culture has been taken over there where we have „interfered“. Our culture is not their culture. Our culture is by far predominant in many respects, for example regarding the ethnical exposure to nature and animals. Additionally, they have been living like this for hundreds of years and were happy with this. We should accept them as they are.
Veg: How have you experienced the Bishnoi as vegetarians?
Hans-Jürgen Otte: Now and then, I was invited for dinner but always just before it got dark. At darkness they have to light paraffin lamps and there would be the danger that insects could fall in their meal. They want to avoid this at any costs because they are strict vegetarians. They would not even take food from somebody who eats meat or has touched any meat. Such a person is unclean as he has killed.
As we ate together they gave me plenteous but they took very few for themselves. They were happy that it tasted me and that they could share their meal with me. Their hospitality was fascinating. They were like children although they are adults.
Sharing is a strong principle, both for adults and for children. Ten children play with a self-made toy and nobody was crying: "This is mine!" They always shared. By the way, the Bishnoi are high grown, sightly and healthy people. Well, this is good evidence that vegetarian food is good for them.
Veg: How could you talk with the Bishnoi?
Hans-Jürgen Otte: None at all. We communicated with sign language. Nevertheless, I recognized that they did not use many words and put a lot with not much across. By contrast, we often talk a lot and say very less. This showed me that it is better to speak pointed words and then to act.
Basically, I experienced that these people pay much attention and respect for each other, especially for the elderly. The elderly are also responsible for the education of the youth. I saw children and youngsters which were listening magnetized to an old man telling stories about the life. There was an unimaginable silence. I thought: Why we can not do this anymore? Are we already so depraved?
The commandments of the Bishnoi
(extract from 29 rules)
• magnanimous and respectful relationship between woman and man
• never kill an animal, no matter how small it is
• never eat meat
• be always satisfied
• think before speaking
• understand, forgive
• do not steal
• do not lie
• do not criticize without a reason
• battle against avarice, anger, concupiscence and bewitchment
• do not compare other with you
• arouse the praise of God every day
• feel sympathy for everything what is alive
• never fell a tree, never cut a verdant tree
• do not smoke opium
• do not smoke tobacco, equal which form
• do not drink alcohol »You cannot think that Bishnoi are an underdeveloped trial and that the environment protection is just a tradition of their culture. The Bishnoi are an elucidated folk. They are masters of their country. Many of them are involved in the politics of country and state.«
Veg: Can you tell us something about the philosophy of life of the Bishnoi?
Hans-Jürgen Otte: The founder of the denomination of Bishnoi is called Jambeshwar and was born in Pipasar in 1451, in the era of sovereign Marwar. The young Jambeshwar guided the sheep and cattle herds from his father out at feed every day. During these hours of loneliness there grow a deep love for the nature and its animals in the young herdsman.
In 1476, he had to undergo helplessly how the whole country was afflicted by aridity. Jambeshwar observed how people ripped leaves from the trees to feed animals. He underwent how the forest was stubbed until now tree was left and how animals were haunted and eradicated finally. He saw how his sainthood, the nature, was transformed into a desert in which nobody could live. And so, he came to the conclusion and he got the vision at the same time that human beings have to live in harmony with the nature and the animals to survive in this scantiness.
During the years, he developed a doctrine which consists of 29 main doctrines. Therefore, his adherents were called Bishnoi: "bish" = 20 and "noi" = 9. As an itinerant preacher who made the sand dunes to his lecterns he could gain a number of adherents which were as determined as he.
He preached correspondingly: "You have to act differently than the culture folks who have been living here. They defiled the nature and the animals. They disregarded natural laws and therefore had to go away from here or died." His disciples realized: "Yes, he is right. If we want to survive here it is our only chance to live in line with the nature and the animals. We do not want to go somewhere else because we love our homeland." Therefore, they changed their life. They noticed that the land gives them abundantly also the animals take a part of it – and that the land gives then even more. And they experienced that animals gave much more then they take as well if they are respected and can live carelessly. For example: Idana, a cow from „my“ village was in calf with twins six times and gave more than 100.000 litres milk without being ill one time.
Today, the followers are estimated on 300.000 like-minded people in Rajasthan and they are spread on many villages with 200-300 persons in each village.
Veg: Bishnoi do not fence their fields. So, the animals can take what they want?
Hans-Jürgen Otte: Yes, agriculture is a game of luck anyway with this weather. Their fields are open and they consider the “damage” which is caused by birds and other animals as a part of their cropping system. But this is not everything: The Bishnoi give the tenth part of the harvest back to the nature and the animals. They feed the animals in the morning and the sun sets. The animals come to the village and get water. Antelopes which are very shy normally eat out of the hand. There were also other little animals: a type of wild dogs and hundreds of birds. They have no fear. There is an unbelievable peaceful atmosphere – you can not describe it. Sometimes, I pinched and asked myself: „Can this be or do I dream? It was reality, it was really reality!! I always say: „Have a look, I already was in paradise." This thought will never ever loose me.
Veg: The Bishnoi do not only hold animals but also tree sacred?
Hans-Jürgen Otte: Yes, for example the Kheirj-tree is sacred for them. Often, they meditate there. Finally, they once have given their lives for this tree. They bind a fibre around this tree which symbolizes the inner connection with the tree. They thank him for the wonderful branches and leaves which give them shadow, protection and some positive impulse. And they thank for the water with which they can water the roots. Near to their home they have one to two trees which they admire specially – representative for all the others.
Veg: And after four months you have left the folk of Bishnoi?
Hans-Jürgen Otte: Yes, despite inner conflicts I finally left. Everything I have seen and experienced is written in my little book „People dieing to save trees and animals“. With this book I would like to give a thought-provoking impulse to us alienable and bestialized people: so that we can think about our relationship with the nature and the animals and that we can take consequence for our own life possibly.
Some week ago I underwent a big surprise. In Aschaffenburg, I took an invitation of an event of the Gabriele-Endowment about the „Parischlife with love-feast“ with me out of a natural food store. And I really went to this event. It was very impressing. About thousand animal friends met in a big meeting room and ingested together the dinner in exalted atmosphere. (This event takes place once a month and everybody who has a heart for animals is invited) Afterwards they spoke about the „peaceful land“ of the Gabriele-Endowment and they showed films and slides about saved animals and the unique biotope combination. It was agitating to see what they have done for these animals. Cattle- and sheep herds which have been retrieved from the slaughter live now happily on a huge feedlot with roomy under storeys. The carers care lovingly about each animal, like a family member. There are also geese, ducks, birds, rabbits and many other animals – the whole land seems to be populated by animals which feel that there is an other spirit around. The carers also tell about a family of ur-cattles which were very, very shy at the beginning. The first calf was very shy as well, the second one a bit less and the third one came soon after its birth without any awe and full of confidence to them. In this generation the animals have already internalizes that people on this piece of land are their friends and that they do not need to be afraid of them. As I heard this I knew: Here, I am right! These people have similar views and life guidelines which I have searched and found at the Bishnoi. Sometimes, life goes strange ways: I travelled so far around the half globe until the desert – and at the same time there are people close to me which aim at the same goal and transform this goal into an act. I just have not known about this…
Veg: Many thanks for this conversation.
People dieing to save trees and animals
Bishnoi-Verlag Hans-Jürgen Otte
Telephone 060 21 / 2 65 23.
ISBN 3-980 3020-0-8,
Newspaper reports from “Sangoshti Vaani”
19. January: 5 persons from the village shot gazelles on a Bishnoi field near to Rewqnda. Manohar Kak holds on of them, namely Karni Dah, and beat him as long as he confessed his act and swore not to commit such crime any more.
20. January: Luna Ram Bishnoi saved a wounded gazelle in Lankhasar whereas he was threatened from the poachers. He replied: "If you kill me now hundreds of Bishnoi will come and will teach you an adequate lesson." The poachers apologized and paid a penalty of 500 rupee.
1. March: Mahendra Khan was collared as he shot on gazelles in the village Chotina. Due to the enragement of his pursuer Khan swore to do this never ever again. He had to pay 45 rupee to the community of the village. The Khan affaire
In 1998, Salman Khan, a famous film star from Hollywood, showed no great understanding for the respectful stance on the nature and the animals during a shooting break. Together with friends he undertook a hunting excursion in the desert Thar. In doing so they entered into a Bishnoi reservation, rushed trusting antelopes until their exhaustion, shot endangered and strict protected Schwarzbock-Antelopes and an Indian gazelle which is also under protection. The Bishnoi believe in the inviolableness of all life and hold the actor and made sure that he was kept for one week. Kahn denied everything and his attorney at law and went on the offensive: "Either these accusations have been made by people who are guilty by themselves and who should deal with their own offences, or they are made by the Bishnoi whose adoration for animals has already obscured their brain." The first autopsy showed that one animal died due to too much food and the other one due to a wrong set jump. Due to the pressure of the media the autopsy of these animals was repeated also they were already buried in the desert. It shaped up that the representatives of the denomination were right and that the animals have been killed illegally. Many people think that Kahn had a lot of luck that he could escape out of the hands of the Bishnoi. As customary, he would have gotten an appropriate object lesson...
as well: "Wegbereiter des Friedens"
Woe betides the hunters!!!
The common habit of the Bishnoi to punish hunters and poacher is not only to beat them but also to sentence them to a payment of a proper sum for the common welfare. Furthermore, they have to swear and pledge persuasively on their knees that they will never ever kill an animal in their whole life. It is not uncommon that hunters are staked naked on the ground from furious Bishnoi-women. There they have to spend some hours in the broiling sun of the desert. They Bishnoi let not take their right away to perform such punishments, despite several official admonitions. Experience showed them that you should not trust official institutes too much.
My first meeting with the Bishnoi
In 1975, I set off to a ramble through the dried up area around Pali together with the photographer Hari Ram to search for gazelles.
It did not take long until we saw actually some gazelles near to the fields of some settlements. Unfortunately, they ran away as we approached and wanted to take photos (at this time there were no telephoto lenses yet).
Our obvious interest for these beautiful, dove-eyed animals brought quickly the excited villager on the scene. They observed us everlasting and shouted at us. I was angry. I did not like this. These people did not please me. I did not pay attention to them and followed the animals without letting me disturb by their protests.
An animal retrieved in a bigger village and crossed the silo facility. There was no other possibility than to run after it across the street. But a group of enraged people barricaded the way and threatened us with truncheons. We could not even think about a continuation of our journey.
They took us to task and wanted to know why we were hunting the game. As the dialogues got more violent some of the villager searched for hidden guns in our jeep. But as we explained that we are a press team, namely reporter and photographer, and our driver translated this, the besieger relaxed and some of them even smiled.
They understood. They offered us some water and answered willingly and patiently to all our questions which poured out of us. Suddenly, everybody was friendly and open-minded. But as I spoke to a young man he did not answer but asked me instead to follow him into his hut. I was irritated: "Why?" - "To answer your questions", he replied friendly.
As I entered the hut I saw a young women crouching in the corner and next to her was a young gazelle. The man spoke to her and thereupon the woman bared her breast and nursed the animal child.
I was stunned. As they saw my astonishment they explained to me that the mother of the gazelle has been killed near to the village some days ago. Indeed, the poacher could escape but they could save the cub. Now, they bring it up with the milk of this woman – the milk of a Bishnoi-woman.
Like anesthetized I bowed in front of these people.
This was my first meeting with Bishnoi – and also my first experience with gazelles in the desert.
As it dawned we drove back and took the train home. During the journey I felt asleep but woke up again and again and saw this woman nursing the young animal. I could not forget this picture in my mind – and I even can not forget until today: This special community captivates me for ever.
I am aware that, during the time, the Bishnoi had modifications in their lifestyle as well but their wonderful tradition of considerateness for fauna and flora still exists! Harsh Vardhan
Source: Herma Brockmann/Renato Pichler: Wegbereiter des Friedens
As I was walking through the village in the evening I saw how a Bishnoi woman attends to a gazelle fawn which was injured by a dog. A herd of antelopes cavort on the near millet fields in the gentle evening sun. I asked myself: “Is this reality in a world in which you kill animals for amusement – or do I dream?!
Born 1951. Working as a non-veterinary practitioner in Aschaffenburg. Author of the book: „People dieing to save trees and animals“