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In India, for the bishnoï, "better a severed head than a felled tree"

Bishnoi himself, the 40-year-old has devoted his life to collecting and caring for animals in distress until they are fully recovered before allowing them to regain their freedom.

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In India, for the bishnoï, "better a severed head than a felled tree"

Bishnoi himself, the 40-year-old has devoted his life to collecting and caring for animals in distress until they are fully recovered before allowing them to regain their freedom.

"I treat animals like my own children. That's what we've been taught since childhood," the 45-year-old man told AFP, while giving a bottle to a fawn.

Bishnoi, undoubtedly among the oldest defenders of nature, are ready to sacrifice their existence to come to the aid of a tree or an animal in danger.

For them, all life is sacred, because their god resides in all life.

This sect of Vishnuite obedience, a current of Hinduism, today has 1.5 million followers, subject to the 29 precepts (in Hindi "bis" meaning 20 and "noi" 9) enacted by its founder, the guru Jambheshwar, in the 15th century.

Spread mainly in the villages of the arid state of Rajasthan, the followers count Amrita Devi among their icons, this bishnoï killed in 1730 by opposing the felling of a khejri (prosopis cineraria), a tree of the desert.

- The martyrs of Khejarli -

According to local history, a local lord sent men to Khejarli in search of wood to fuel the calcining kilns to produce cement and lime to build his palace.

On their arrival, these men, armed with axes, were busy felling one of the many khejri in the village, when Amrita rushed to embrace the trunk of the threatened tree, making a rampart with her body.

"Despite her pleas, the men did not stop. And as she hugged the tree, the king's men mercilessly cut the tree and the head" of Amrita, recounts with emotion Sukhdev Godara, a teacher at retirement.

Amrita's three daughters in turn threw themselves on the trees to protect them before suffering the same fate as their mother. In all, 363 Bishnoi men, women and children were killed for coming to the aid of the village trees.

Since then, the Bishnoi have been accustomed to repeating his last words: "Better a severed head than a felled tree".

Their sacrifice is now commemorated in the village by a cenotaph bearing the names of all these martyrs, surmounted by a statue bearing the likeness of Amrita Devi.

Villager Sita Devi, a strictly vegetarian like the whole community, feeds her cooking fire with cow dung patties rather than firewood to feed her family.

Dressed in a traditional long pink skirt and sparkling gold jewellery, the mother of seven says she breastfed an orphan fawn herself.

"I was working in the fields when I saw this fawn being attacked by wild dogs", she recalls, "I rescued him and took him home". "I fed the fawn with my own milk and when he regained his strength, I released him back into the wild," she says proudly.

- Harmony and benevolence -

Bishnoi do not cremate their dead as this would involve cutting down trees to feed the fire, but bury them.

Farmers for the most part, they ensure that no animal is in danger on their land.

Lawyer Rampal Bhawad co-founded the Bishnoi Tiger Force, an anti-poaching conservation organization, after learning that Bollywood superstar Salman Khan had killed two protected species of black antelope while filming a movie in Rajasthan in 1998.

Bishnoi followed the trial for 20 years, until the actor was sentenced to five years in prison for violating the Wildlife Protection Act.

But his sentence was later suspended on appeal as the star had just spent his first days behind bars.

Since then, "we have been filing complaints with the police and pursuing cases until the culprits are punished," Bhawad told AFP.

At a time of the fight against climate change, "we should plant more and more trees", reminds the lawyer bishnoï, "we should live in harmony with nature, show us benevolent with all living beings" .

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