For centuries, the Bishnoi have sworn by the preservation of plants and animals. Some have even lost their lives to defend this cause. Today, the textile industry in Rajasthan is threatening their future.
"To lose one's head is better than to lose a tree," according to a Bishnoi proverb.
The "eco-religion" was founded in the 15th century, when a farmer, who is now known as Guru Jambheshwar, retreated after a long drought and formulated 29 tenets according to which the farmers of the Thar Desert region should live their lives.
The word bis means 20, whereas noi means nine. The tenets revolve around personal hygiene, basic health, social behavior, the worship of God, biodiversity and good animal husbandry. They include a ban on the felling of green trees.
"The Bishnoi are a caste within the Hindu caste system," explains Dr Pankaj Jain from the University of Texas. "They are strict vegetarians and do not kill living beings. Nature is holy to them."
The textile industry is polluting India's rivers
However, the lives of the half million or so Bishnois who live in India's western state of Rajasthan are currently under threat.
The hundreds of small and medium-sized textile companies in the city of Jodhpur have polluted the Loni River, which is essential for keeping the sacred forest of Khejarli green and allowing the wild animals that are central to the Bishnois' beliefs to graze.
"Nothing grows here anymore," complains Balaram Bishnoi, a farmer from the village of Doli. "The land is dead. I had vegetables, crops and sesame - all kinds of things. Now not even grass grows anymore. The land has dried out completely."
He and several other farmers have filed a suit against the region's textile industry and are currently awaiting a verdict.
Two centuries ago, at least 364 Bishnois died trying to protect the trees of Khrejarli.
Shivdas Shastri, the village priest, relates the story: "Some 200 years ago, the king ordered the forest to be cleared to build a palace. When the king's men came to fell the trees, the Bishnoi from the surrounding villages protested. 'We will die, but we won't allow the trees to be felled,' they shouted."
Today, the villagers are in conflict with poachers. They live in very close proximity with animals such as deer, antelopes or even peacocks. If hunters kill a fawn's mother, it is nursed by Bishnoi women.
Banaram Bishnoi is furious about the poachers whose activity is threatening the region's endangered species. "Sometimes we catch them. We don't have weapons but the whole village comes together and gives them no chance to escape."
He says that they once caught and hit a poacher with his own weapon until it broke.
At a crossroads
However, it is modernization that is most difficult to combat. "It is difficult to stay true to our ideals," says the community's leader Faglu Ramji. "If we see how fast the world develops, we often feel as if we are losers," says the member of Jeevraksha, which is campaigning for the Bishnois' future.
Faglu Ramji's father refused a job in the Indian Army because his grandfather was against it and he would not have been able to carry out all the duties. He would not have been able to use violence, for instance, or eat meat.
"We ask ourselves sometimes what would have happened if he had taken the job, whether we would also have ended up working there. Our economic and social development is weak," he says.
He now has a car and has set up his own transport company, which helps him to earn a living. His son Bablu is studying in Jodhpur. "I want to become a civil servant and work for the city administration. I don't want to go back to the village," he says.
However, many other Bishnois want to stay in their forest and cannot imagine an alternative.
Author: Felix Gaedtke, Gayatri Parameswaran / act
Editor: Sarah Berning