In summer, temperatures in the Thar Desert soar as high as fifty degrees. Nevertheless, the sandy desert in the Indian state of Rajasthan is surprisingly green in places. It is home to the Hindu religious community of the Bishnoi, whose members are considered the world's first environmental activists.
In the 15th century, there was a terrible drought in Rajasthan. Guru Jambheshwar, the later founder of the Bishnoi, was meditating in the desert at the time and wrote 29 rules for a life in harmony with nature, including “Never kill an animal, no matter how small” and “Never cut down a tree, never prune a greening tree”.
“According to the tale, a brave Bishnoi woman stood in the way of the Maharaja's soldiers”.
A khejrib tree, like the one in this picture, is considered an important religious site for the Bishnoi. For in 1730, the Maharaja of the then princely state of Marwar is said to have ordered many khejrib trees to be cut down for the construction of a palace.
According to the story, however, a courageous Bishnoi woman stood in the way of the Maharajah's soldiers. This inspired the inhabitants of the surrounding villages to stand up and protect the trees. In just one day, 363 people are said to have been beheaded. The memory of the massacre is still so formative for many Bishnoi that they take special care of and protect the Khejrib trees in the barren desert landscape.
As a photographer, I travelled to the Bishnoi in 2017. Ved Prakash Godara, a Bishnoi living in Mumbai, proudly showed me pilgrimage sites, green oases and animal care stations in the desert. For me, the Bishnoi are impressive proof that environmental protection is not a new trend, but rather has been practised for centuries.
Translated by Jess Smee