THE PEOPLE WHO HUGGED THE TREES The events in this story took place in 1730. Many years ago, Amrita Devi lived in a Bishnoi village amidst the deserts of Rajasthan in northern India. The Bishnoi sect seeks to live in harmony with nature and protect the trees and wild life. As a child Amrita was taught that trees guarded the village from sandstorms as well as giving fresh air and water, fodder for cattle and food to humans. Amrita loved trees and each morning would place her hands on the trunk of a tree and say:
"Tree, you are tall and beautiful. How could we live without you?
You guard us, you feed us, you give us the breath of life.
Tree, give me your strength to protect you".
One day when Amrita was grown up and married with children, the quietness of the village was broken by the sound of men with axes. The Maharaja of Jodhpur who ruled the area wanted to build a new palace so he sent men to cut down the trees.
As these men paused to sharpen their axes, Amrita saw them and asked them not to chop the trees as it was against the villagers' faith. The woodcutters said,
The woodcutters pulled her away and threw her on the ground. Amrita was quick to get up again and hug her tree. The woodman had to hack through her body before he could strike at the trunk of the tree. Amrita was followed by three of her daughters, and Bishnoi from the nearby area came running to hug the trees.
The cutters had to hack their way through the bodies of the tree-hugging (Chipko) people. The woodcutters returned to the Maharaja with only a small quantity of timber and told the angry Maharaja about the Bishnoi hugging the trees.
They said: "We had to hack through the bodies of 363 Bishnoi to get it."
The Maharaja demanded, "Are you reporting to me that you were forced to kill 363 of my people? Why didn't you go somewhere else?"
The cutters replied, "Sir, wherever we went we found these Bishnoi hugging the trees." Then the Maharaja gave orders for work to stop on the new palace.
Next day he set out to visit the Bishnoi village. The village leaders prepared gifts of herbs and fruits and went ahead to welcome the Maharaja. On entering the village the Maharaja found the air fragrant with sandalwood, and incense was burning while villagers were saying prayers for those who had given themselves to save the trees. The Maharaja was deeply impressed that the Bishnois did not complain about the deaths of their people. They even welcomed him in festive mood. He was deeply moved by the non-violent approach of the Bishnois and he wanted to make amends. He declared that from that day no taxes would be collected, the Bishnoi villages would never be called upon to provide timber, and there would be no animal hunting allowed.
Today these Bishnoi villages are still surrounded by their trees, khejari and beech, a green mantle keeping guard against the encroachment of the barren desert. The wild life gives the area the appearance of a sanctuary.
Today the Chipko Movement in India is a non-violent activist movement that draws on the story of the Bishnoi people and hugs trees to prevent them from being felled.