A rare moment

As I walked along a narrow street in Bundi during one of my journeys through India I heard a voice call out at me. “come, come in, you want photograph my family?” The young dark man in his early twenties standing at the doorway had obviously noticed the large camera hanging from my neck. As with most Indians he thought it would be a great privilege to have his family photos taken by a foreigner. As with most foreigners with a big camera I quickly realized that it would be a great privilege for me to enter this man’s house and photograph his family. The only issue I had was that I was supposed to meet my good friend and travel companion Jenzen and I was already running late. Well he was an easy going guy I thought and he would understand. So I followed the nice man through the small doorway and along a dark narrow corridor until we came to another small door to the left. he stood at the door and pointed into the room inviting me in. In the darkness I could just about make out his proud smile in anticipation. As I crouched through the small wooden door and looked in I saw his wife lying on their bed cuddling tenderly with their newly born baby. At once I realized that this was one of those rare moments that would stay with me forever. She had given birth on that same bed a few weeks earlier and now I was being asked to photograph them by the proud father. A real privilege. Once finished with the mother and child the happy father now insisted that I drunk some tea whilst photographing his elderly mother, his sister who had two completely different colored eyes and his down syndrome brother. All this provided me with great photographic material but what about Jenzen?
I arrived very late to meet my friend and I had my excuse all planned out when I saw him walking steadily towards me full of excuses himself. he explained how he had also been invited into a home and was given tea and biscuits. We both had lots to talk about that evening.


The story of the Bishnoi.


The story begins on the outskirts of Jodhpur in the village of Jalnadi, home of the Bishnoi people. The year was 1730, give or take. Servants of the maharajah, or king, travelled there looking for timber to build his new palace. That they arrived in Jalnadi was no coincidence they knew that the Bishnoi, a religious sect that worshipped nature, forbade the felling of trees. Their village stood out on the desert landscape for its lush abundance of timber. And not just any timber, but khejri trees so valuable in the Thar desert region that the species, Prosopis cineraria, is sometimes called a “wonder tree” or “king of the desert.” Not only are these trees scarce, but they play an essential part in daily life: enriching the soil with nitrogen and other nutrients, necessary for growing crops, and providing shade, shelter and fodder for livestock. As the legend goes, a villager named Amrita Devi noticed the men wandering onto her land, cutting down her precious khejri trees. Outraged, she wedged herself between the axmen and a tree, hugging it with all her might. She is remembered as saying, “If a tree is saved from felling at the cost of one’s head, it should be considered a good deed.” The men were not impressed; Devi was decapitated in front of her two daughters. Trees continued to fall. Rather than retreat, however, Devi’s daughters followed their mother’s suit and clung valiantly to the trees. Within moments, they too were beheaded by the maharajah’s men. It was not long before the whole village rose up in revolt. Men, women and children joined in, embracing the trees upon which their survival depended and heads continued to roll.
Bishnois from nearby villages joined the fight. An astonishing 363 people had been slaughtered by the time the maharajah intervened. He immediately issued a decree protecting their land from any future harm. The Bishnoi martyrs paid a heavy price. But over the next three centuries, such commitment to ecological conservation would prove invaluable to their descendants. Living in a region threatened by crippling droughts and limited natural resources, the Bishnoi have favoured far better than other communities. They have staved off famine and migration, living by a sacred code that treats plants and animal life with supreme respect. Their rugged, self-sufficient way of life has let them live richly in the desert for hundreds of years, a way of life worth defending, arguably, by any means necessary.