Travelling by bike is really annoying – it’s slow, often exhausting, frustrating and limits what you can see and do. It also happens to be one of the best ways to travel if you want to fully experience a land and meet its people. Cycling however is not enough, you have to learn to say yes, to change your plans when opportunity presents itself (we find not really having a plan helps with this) and be prepared to go with the magical happenings that will unfold.
I knew I wanted to meet the Bishnoi. They are the original radical, environmentalists and their lands are harmonious wooded areas filled with trees, birds and wildlife. Two centuries ago more than 360 Bishnoi people died protecting trees that the Maharajah of Jodhpur had ordered to be felled to construct his new palace. Led by Amrita Devi, a local women, the Bishnoi put themselves in the line of the axes to save the trees they consider sacred. Such is the groups dedication to protecting trees and wildlife, as they believe harming the environment means harming oneself.
So when Ram Jeevan Bishnoi invited us home to see his village we didn’t hesitate to say yes. ‘My mum is going to be so excited, she’s never seen foreigners’ giggled Ram.
For the next 24 hours we are taken under the loving wing of Ram’s family. At first we were all a little shy but Ram is the ultimate host and under his guidance we all quickly relaxed. Shanti, his mum prepared delicious food for us in her simple kitchen. The Bishnoi use limited wood for cooking and never cut green trees, they are also unique amongst Hindus in that they do not cremate their dead, instead burying them to conserve wood.
Ram showed us around his farm where his father, grandfather, extended family and neighbours are installing a new water pump. It is amazing that anything grows here in this sandy land with brackish water, but the farm succeeds through skill, determination and respect. The Bishnoi follow the teachings of Guru Jambhesvara who set out in the 15th Century 29 principles for living in harmony with nature. He set out the principles following a famine, having made the connection between human practices and their impact on the environment. Still today the Bishnoi fight to protect their eco values, with the recent high profile case of a famous Bollywood actor being taken to trail by the tribe for shooting a Black Buck on their land.
Laughter filled Ram’s home and it felt like the most harmonious place we have been for a while. Neighbours popped round to say hello, Ioan is given a turban and taught how to tie it, I am given a beautiful shawl and a pink sari. In the afternoon the baby naps, and Shanti and Ram’s sister Ramewshari milk the buffalo. In the evening Ram called us over to the room where the family sleeps communally and we settle down to watch Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. That night we sleep soundly on comfy charpoy cots under the stars, lulled to sleep by religious music and chanting from the nearby temple.
The next morning we watched as Grandma Veera Devi made fresh yoghurt from buffalo milk and once again laughter filled the air as Ram tested out Ioan’s sleeping bag. Ram works in Barmer as a government official during the week and so Monday morning meant a return to work. We accompanied him back to the main road and set off back on our journey with happy hearts.
We only get a couple of kilometres down the road before we are invited home for a cup of tea by a passing Bishnoi teacher. We say yes and he takes us home to meet his wife who prepares the hot sweet, milky chai for us whilst wearing her stunning signature Bishnoi jewelry. These are proud, generous, peaceful people who have found a way to live in harmony with nature yet despite their best efforts to protect it their environment is changing. Last summer (May 2016) saw temperatures in Phalodi, Rajasthan, reach a scorching 51 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded in India. Across the globe temperatures are rising year on year and if we want to minimize the catastrophic impacts of climate change then we all need to be more Bishnoi and make protecting the environment central to our existence.
Thank you Ram for inviting us home to meet your family. Good luck with your wedding in April, sorry we can’t make it. Rest assured we will come back to visit soon and we look forward to welcoming you to our home in Romania one day.