The Bishnois - India's 'original conservationists' – would be so proud of Michael Tavares spending four-days on a 500-year-old Kauri tree in Titirangi, West Auckland
It's a story of over six centuries of fiercely protecting trees and wild animals, which started in 1485 AD.
In the North-western part of India, in what is present-day state of Rajasthan (mostly desert), a saint Guru Jambheshwar (or Jamboji) started a new religion based on 29 principles of environment and wild life protection and conservation, called Bishnoism. Of these, two most important principles were – not to cut green trees, and be compassionate to all living beings including wild animals.
The people who followed the religion came to be known as Bishnios. They slowly learnt to survive and live in complete harmony with Nature even in the harshest arid desert conditions.
But the event which is arguably described as world's greatest conservation story happened around 150 years later, in 1730 AD.
The local king Abhay Singh needed some wood to construct his palace in the present-day city of Jodhpur.
For this, reversing his father's earlier order of banning tree-cutting in the Bishnoi villages, Abhay Singh sent a team of wood-cutters accompanied by his soldiers to a nearby Bishnoi village of Khejarli.
Once in the village, the kings-men started felling what Bishnois consider sacred - Khejri trees, which prompted a woman named Amrita Devi to protest.
Seeing that her protests are falling on deaf ears, Amrita Devi clung to a tree and said her now-famous-words, “Sir santhe runkh rahe to bhi sasto jan.” [Translated as I am willing to sacrifice my head to protect a tree]
Soldiers, being soldiers and following the king's orders, decapitated her!
On seeing this, Amrita Devi's three daughters came forward, clung to Khejri trees, and offered their heads as well.
They were killed too!
This mobilised the village en mass and one-by-one Bishnoi men, women, and children started clinging to trees offering their heads.
In all, 363 Bishnois gave up their lives before the news of the many-day-long massacre reached Abhay Singh who ordered his army to step down. An order to restore the earlier ban of tree-cutting and hunting in Bishnoi villages was passed soon after.
A temple to honour those who sacrificed their lives was built and 363 Khejri trees were planted at the massacre site.
Centuries later, when India became an independent nation, the Government of India instituted a national award called Amrita Devi Bishnoi Wildlife Protection Award, which is given “for significant contribution in the field of wildlife protection, to someone who has shown exemplary courage or done exemplary work for the protection of wildlife”.
A Bishnoi village