Shajanram is a frail little person in his late eighties.
Yet, he moves gracefully, with the agility of a nearby desert antelope. The thick round glasses lying on his aquiline nose magnify the darkness of his black, almond-shaped eyes.
The white beard and long mustache match the uniform colour of his shirt, dhoti and turban. His smile is spontaneous, frequent and highly infectious, like his kindness.
He bows in respect to welcome guests in the home that he shares with his four sons, their wives and a total of twelve healthy and cheerful grandchildren. Under the old tree in the courtyard, he sits with dignity on a humble cot. His spaced-out yellow teeth give a good reason for the existence of the French saying ‘les dents du bonheur’, the teeth of happiness.
Shajanram does not speak a word of English. His facial expressions genuinely convey his feelings, passing through no filter, no social barrier. For the rest, a guide translates his sacred speech.
As an elderly man in a Bishnoi family, he administers the eco-friendly life of the community and naturally inspires respect from others.
Following the twenty-nine principles -’bis’ for twenty and ‘noi’ for nine- stated by Guru Jambheshwar in the 15th century, the Bishnois are wise ecologists who believe in the necessity of preserving biodiversity and adopting conscious behaviour.
The Guru, a Rajput from Bikaner largely ahead of its time, stated fundamental tenets: some about personal hygiene (‘to take early morning bath daily’); others on spiritual life (‘to meditate twice a day’); a few around social conduct (‘to be forgiving in nature’, ‘not to tell lies’); and many for the protection of the environment (‘to be compassionate towards all living beings’, ‘not to eat meat’).
Entering a Bishnoi village, the visitor discovers an unparalleled cleanliness and a unique joie de vivre. A few round, sand-coloured huts, with thatched roofs and white paintings, house the whole family. Under the family’s protection, Khejri trees and black buck antelopes bloom peacefully. Shajanram kindly introduces his son, the latter’s wife and their two daughters. The youngest babbles in a handcrafted cradle under her mother’s tender gaze. The other kids are at school, in the nearby village. They will be back in the afternoon. In front of their house, two cows stand peacefully, longing for their return.
Harmony reigns among the Bishnoi. Their unique philosophy offers a few clues into the meaning of happiness. Green, long before today’s environmentalists, the Bishnois unknowingly pioneered an inspiring, holistic way of life.
As Shajanram waves us goodbye, we’ll never forget him.
ABOVE: Inside a Bishnoi home
ABOVE: Bishnoi tribeswomen breastfeed deer alongside children.
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