Posts Tagged ‘Jodhpur’

Super Tree!

The Khejri, Prosopis cineraria, will give any wilderness survival expert a run for his money.  In an environment that endures as little as 100mm rainfall each year, competition for water is the game.  For Khejri, winning is easy.  It is capable of lodging roots 30 metres into the ground and accessing water obscured from the grasps of animals and other plants alike.  Withstanding great variation in temperatures, it easily copes with summer heat in the 50⁰C range and winter nights that can bottom at around 0⁰C.  Almost evergreen and thriving in the harshest of conditions, it is a super species, with all the stamina, vigor and resilience of a great warrior. 
Huge, untouched Khejri tree
A Khejri or Prosopis Cineraria

Like a true hero, it is patient benefactor, generously giving shade from the pitiless heat of the sun, feeding our animals, providing fruits fit for our consumption, releasing nitrogen for our soil, stabilising dunes, medicating the weak, fuelling our fires and supplying the most sophisticated air-pollution filtration system known to man.  Over the years this old combatant has seen its surroundings change, as wilderness gives way to rising agriculture, political systems ebb and flow under the weight of oppressive regimes, industrialisation and mechanization.  It patiently stands by as many human lifetimes pass before its eyes and we increasingly reap the gifts that Khejri gives to us but provide it with nothing in return.

Back in 1485 AD, this was recognised by a prolific leader named Guru Jambheshwar, or Jambhoji, who understood its importance and made his followers swear never to cut green trees.  These people, the Bishnoi community, have faithfully devoted themselves to this cause and vehemently protect all green trees, especially Khejri.  The most famous and astounding story is that of Amrita Devi, which took place in the year 1730 AD.  Stop anywhere near Jodhpur and you will find this story has become a legend, proudly disclosed by all communities to tourists and stoppers by. 

Painting of Amita Devri found at the Bishnoi Village Camp near Khejarli

Painting of Amita Devri found at the Bishnoi Village Camp near Khejarli

So it is told, the Maharaja of the area had plans to build a princely palace and needed a substantial quantity of firewood to produce lime.  He sent forth his forces to a large population of Khejri trees, in Khejarli, to cut them down.  Amrita Devi, a loyal Bishnoi mother versed in the teachings of Jambhoji, faced the soldiers and proclaimed that anyone wishing to cut a tree would have to first cut through her.  Weaponless in her protection of the trees, it is said that she hugged the nearest Khejri, forcing the axe-wielding soldiers to cut through her neck.  Incensed at the loss of tree and fellow compatriot, villagers came from all around to face the Maharaja’s army.  By the end of the massacre, 363 Bishnois had given their lives in sacrifice to save green trees.  Appalled at the situation and overwhelmed by the dedication of the villagers, the Maharaja passed a decree legally protecting green trees, which stands to this day.  Furthermore, it is highly likely that the term ‘tree hugger’ originated 280 years ago when Amrita Devi demonstrated a mother’s love for our hero, the Khejri tree.

 

In modern times the tree is not simply threatened by people intent on destruction for firewood.  It is the bearer of a crueler ill, falling victim at the hands of farmers who are unintentionally harming their protector.  Of the gifts donated by Khejri, there is a vital foodstuff for domestic animals known as ‘Loong’.  In addition to providing feed in times of scarcity, Loong is highly nutritious, increasing both the quality and quantity of milk yield in cows, buffalo and goats. 

Camel Cart being loaded with Khejri

Lopping provides both Loong and firewood

Another repercussion, only identified in the last few years, shows that lopping also creates an ideal habitat for invasive beetle larvae.  Species such as Gahen, Derolus discicollis, which are huge beetles, bore into the open shoot or branch and lay their eggs.  Growing larvae need lots of nutrients and extract these from their host, the Khejri tree, further weakening its condition.

The Arid Forest Research Institute (AFRI) in Jodhpur kindly permitted me to accompany them on a research mission to assess mortality rates in the Khejri population.  It was fascinating day, not least because the AFRI Khejri specialists are a diverse and knowledgeable crew of experts.  We visited several farms, quantifying tree populations, assessing the incidence of infection and causes of death in each.  While the team collected samples for analysis, it gave me time to gauge the considerable share drying out from the top branches downwards, all at varying stages of dilapidation.  Hanging off many trees were mushroom-like growths, the trees were not just under attack from shoot-boring beetles but fungi causing heart rot and root damage too.  AFRI experts earmarked healthy trees for further scrutiny, in the hope that some form of immunity could be identified, and took samples for lab analysis from deceased trees.  Although there were undoubtedly pockets of healthy, undamaged trees in view, farmers typically reported that they were loosing between 1 and 5 trees per year.  They were confounded by the loss and could not understand the cause, let alone administer treatment.  Care alone can be woefully inadequate where knowledge is not available, especially in remote farming communities with high illiteracy.

Painting of the Khejarli massacre displayed inside the temple

Bishnois: Passion for wildlife protection and ready to fight for it.

Naturally, in depth analysis of deceased Khejri means that one had to be uprooted, which happened to take place in a Bishnoi-owned farm.  No sooner had men begun to expose the roots with shovels than a greyed, weather-worn lady came approaching at implausible speed.  She was furious, spitting out protestations in her native tongue, Marwari.  It took some time for her husband and the team of experts to calm her down, explaining that the tree had already expired with no chance of recovery, that the scientists mean no harm and only wanted to help solve the problem.  Despite the eccentricity of the situation, I was greatly encouraged to see that the Bishnoi were not simply legendary idealists but still actively impassioned about wildlife protection and ready to fight for it.
Lopped Khejri tree just starting to reshoot

Lopped Khejri tree grappling to produce new shoots and leaves

 

Khejri is the treasured state tree of Rajasthan and sacredly embodies the divinity of nature for the Bishnoi, so it is not short of care from supporters.  However, under siege from ignorance, overuse, root borers, shoot borers, fungus and inhibition of its natural functions, will this be enough?  Dr Ahmed, AFRI expert, explains “Farmers need to be educated about the perils of lopping and receive remuneration for the loss of an essential animal fodder source.  Excessive agricultural mechanisation also causes problems; it does not allow the slow growing Khejri saplings time to take root.  In turn this means that we are also contemplating these problems in the context of an ageing Khejri population.” 

In mythological stories of super heroes and far-fetched odds, the protagonist comes alarmingly close to perishing at the hands of wrong doers.  In these dearly loved tales the champion always conquers in the end, albeit with a few friendly nudges in the right direction.  The Khejri now hangs on this precipice, the part in the story where the situation is seemingly bleak.  The question is whether this treasured great warrior will continue to be the king of survival experts and recover from persecution.  We are its trusty sidekicks and have a responsibility to ensure the Khejri’s survival by spreading branches of awareness as far as we can reach.  If only trees could talk!

The Thar desert: A contradiction in terms?

DESERT (Definition as per Oxford Dictionaries, April 2010)

 

Rolling dunes as far as the eye can see

Bare expanses of desert are present but rare in the Thar

Noun

  • a waterless, desolate area of land with little or no vegetation, typically one covered with sand

Verb

  • abandon
  • leave (a place), causing it to appear empty

Adjective

  • uninhabited and desolate

 

Conjure the image of a subtropical desert into mind and you will most likely picture a vast expanse of uninhabitable sand dunes.  Therefore it comes as something of a surprise to find that the Thar uniquely supports rich vegetation, wildlife and culture. 
A pair of eagles

Eagles

Conditions are extreme, with intense summer heat, failing monsoons and a rapidly dwindling water table, but flora and fauna are still thriving here.  Agriculture not only sustains the local population but makes reliable profits at markets as far away as New Delhi.  In most villages there are new stone buildings popping up in amongst the huts, and in some cases dramatically out-numbering them.  Where biodiversity is concerned, neither time nor patience are required to sight exciting and rare wildlife, like black bucks, blue bulls and gazelles, eagles, vultures and kites, to name just a few.

Man and wife in traditional dress in the desert

Pilgrims travelling over 300km on foot to pray for a child after 15 years of marriage

Survival in the Thar Desert requires toughness in order to cope with the relentless and unforgiving climate.  Even the majority of plants and shrubs have evolved deadly looking thorns.  Similarly, the people who live there are robust and sturdy, with weather-beaten faces and surprising physical strength even at old age.  Over thousands of years, life-preserving knowledge has been passed through the generations, enabling each community to adapt and flourish.  Communities are still segregated by caste, such as Bishnoi, Jat or Rajput, but whichever the group family always reigns supreme.  Families live collectively with many generations under the same roof, working together to generate income, care for the dwelling and raise children.

On our first day in the desert we stumbled upon a farm near Sika where the farmer was very happy to answer some questions and show us around.  For generations his family had owned and worked 16.5 hectares, or about 41 acres of agricultural land.  Having just harvested a yield of ground nut, he was in the process of sewing the winter wheat. 

Green, unripened Ber fruits

Unripened Ber fruits

One thing that was immediately impressive was the efficiency of this desert farm; it was almost entirely self-contained, requiring little from the outside world and putting nothing to waste.  In addition to the agricultural produce, many uncultivated shrubs and plants were also used in some capacity, whether for firewood, animal fodder, roofing, pillow stuffing, medicine or food, like the sweet, red fruits of the Ber shrub.  Water was collected using 3 tube wells and electricity was the only fixed cost, on which 10,000 rupees, or £150, was spent per month.

Two cows and four buffalo, fed on shrubs and leftovers from crop production, produced about 40 litres of milk per day, 5 for family use and 35 sold at market.  Sold at 20 rupees per litre, this meant the farm generated 700 rupees (£10) in income per day or an equivalent 255,500 rupees (£3650) per year, providing that none of the cows were in calf.  Another valuable commodity, the farm played host to around 30 Khejri trees, which, as well as providing highly nutritious loong for animals, also provide Sangri fruits consumed by people.  According to our friendly farmer, one tree could generate as much as 80kg of Sangri and selling for 180 rupees per kg at market.  Across 30 trees, that is a potential 432,000 rupees or £6171 income per annum.  With few costs and high efficiency, I came to the conclusion that this farm was a highly profitable business.  Certainly, the numbers above would be enough to make my family, who are small-holding sheep farmers in rural Warwickshire, incredibly jealous.

The future of the Thar Desert and its current agricultural prosperity is not at all promising and clear-cut.  Unchecked mining and deforestation means that the water table is unstably diminishing and that the desert is expanding.  Over utilisation of resources and rising agricultural mechanisation also puts strain on the whole ecosystem, causing new problems to arise. 

Male gazelle

How can we secure the future of the Indian gazelle?

Wild animals are illegally poached and the spiraling dog population is causing particular problems for animals like gazelles and black buck.  Education in India is free and only on the brink of becoming compulsory, so many farmers’ children choose not to attend and stay at home to help on the farm instead.  Resultant illiteracy makes it difficult to promote awareness of threats to the desert ecology and sustainable agricultural techniques.  At the governmental level there are also many problems, such as the necessary rapid growth for combating famine and poverty clashing with the need to protect the natural environment.

The problems of the Thar Desert highlight the need for protection of the plentiful wildlife and unique, culturally rich communities that live within it.  One community standing at the forefront of desert protection is the Bishnois, indigenous followers of a religion sworn to safeguard its flora and fauna.  Over coming articles, the Bishnoi religion and their valuable involvement in the future of the desert will be explained as per my experiences of living in their community.  With regards to the Thar, it may fit the technical label of a desert but other associations do not apply, deserted it most certainly is not.

Where is all this going?

Dear friends and readers,

You may have noticed that this website has not been following its dedicated course over the past few weeks.  It’s called “Meet the Bishnoi” and yet where is anything related the Bishnoi people of the Thar desert, Rajasthan, India?

I’m here to tell you not to worry.  In McLeod Ganj, I made a pledge that I would write about the my experiences with Tibetans and, being a stickler for promises, refused to go back on my word.

Favourite animal in Jaipur: Chipmunks

My online work has also fallen behind schedule because there’s been lots going on in the real world too here in Jaipur.  I’ve been busily making plans for the desert and the time when I do meet the Bishnois.

It turned out, not so surprisingly, that my primitive use of Hindi would not be sufficient to gain a deep understanding of the Thar desert world.  I have still be plugging away with my ‘Teach Yourself’ book but have had to come up with some other solutions too.  The biggest change to the original plan is that, instead of staying with one family for the whole three months, I’ll be staying with a few, some of whom have good English speakers amongst them.  Also, with the help of my friends at the internet cafe, I’ve made an introductory A4 page in Hindi explaining who I am, why I’m there and what I would like to know.  Hopefully it’ll help me out of tricky situations and bridge a little bit of the communication gap.

Fortunately Mr Harsh Vardhan, my guide and mentor, has given me contact details for experts in desert conservation, Bishnoism, zoology and poaching prevention so I’ve written to all seeking interviews.  It will be wonderful if I get to meet them and I’m hoping that I have some great questions ready.  The structure has been guided by my Project Plan, a document that I’ve put together to give me clear aims, objectives and timescales to work to.  It’s also helped me identify some key themes for my research, some of which are listed below, so look out for articles on these themes soon.

Proposed research themes:
  • Availability of food in the Thar desert
  • Bishnoi religion and the divinity of nature
  • Developing tourism in a more positive manner
  • Gazelle and Black Buck populations
  • Khejri tree mortality
  • The role of women in Bishnoism

Masses of dirty plastic waste clogs up one entrance to the lake as treated water mixes with raw sewerage. Tom & James have their work cut out for them!

This week Tom and James successfully began their project helping to clean up the Mansagar lake in Jaipur.  In between three week home-stays with Bishnoi families, I’ll be spending a week with them at their hotel.  The deal rests on the grounds that I help out with their placement provider, JMRPL.  As a result I’ve learned about what the boys are doing and will assist them in their office work.  Yep, that means I’m back in the grasps of good old Excel spreadsheets.

Alongside project plans, issues surrounding Hindi, articles about Tibet, interview planning and Mansagar lake, we’ve also been exploring Jaipur city a little and experiencing our first Diwali.  I’ve never seen fireworks like it.  The difference between here and England, where Health and Safety bods stamp all over firework production, is phenomenal.

Please excuse me because I appear to have rambled on.  The final thing to tell you is that we’re leaving for the desert tomorrow.  A group of five of us are setting off to explore the desert ecology and also to get our first introductions with the Bishnoi community.  When the others return to Jaipur, they’ll leave me with my first Bishnoi family and this project will finally be set in full motion.  I’m not sure about internet connectivity for the next few weeks but if there isn’t plenty to write about on my return I’m definitely not cut out for this.

Ta ta for now everyone.  All the best to you all and hope that you will pop here again soon to read the next edition.

Best wishes from TorJ x

Introduction

A Bishnoi Wife

All being well, in a few short weeks time I will wake up to find myself living with a tribe of people called the Bishnoi, in the Thar desert, India.  It will be at least a 3 month project and I’m there to tentatively try to understand Bishnoi culture and values by getting involved in daily life; be that milking buffalo, collecting seeds or fetching water.  The Bishnoi centre many of their beliefs around care for the environment.  They are a gentle people who go to great lengths to encourage animal and plant life, especially in resisting poaching and tree felling.

The Bishnoi people are not internationally well-known but have done astounding things to preserve the natural world around them since well before Shakespeare walked the streets of England.  Whilst living with a Bishnoi family, my goal will be to take on the role of a gentle and open-minded pupil, then to use the experience to encourage understanding and thoughtfulness elsewhere.

Over the next few months this blog will be populated with stories, info, links and discoveries.  Use the ‘SUBSCRIBE’ tab in the top right hand corner of this page to make sure you are kept up to date when there are new articles to read.  Don’t miss the adventure!

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