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Part I (1916)

Part I was written in 1916 when conditions were different. Even in
1916 its contents related only to Central India and did not claim to be true
of all of India. It has been archived for its historical value as well as for
the insights it gives into British colonial writing about the various communities
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From The Tribes And Castes Of The Central Provinces Of India

By R. V. Russell

Of The Indian Civil Service

Superintendent Of Ethnography, Central Provinces

Assisted By Rai Bahadur Hira Lal, Extra Assistant Commissioner

Macmillan And Co., Limited, London, 1916.

NOTE 1: The 'Central Provinces' have since been renamed Madhya Pradesh.

NOTE 2: While reading please keep in mind that all articles in this series have been scanned from the original book. Therefore, footnotes have got inserted into the main text of the article, interrupting the flow. Readers who spot these footnotes gone astray might like to shift them to their correct place.

Origin of the sect.

Bishnoi _ - A Hindu sect which has now developed into a caste. The sect was founded in the Punjab, and the Bishnois are immigrants from northern India. In the Central Provinces they numbered about 1100 persons in 1911, nearly all of whom belonged to the Hoshangabad District. The best description of the sect is contained in Mr. Wilson's _Sirsa Settlement Report_ (quoted in Sir E. Maclagan's _Census Report of the Punjab_ for 1891), from which the following details are taken: "The name Bishnoi means a worshipper of Vishnu. The founder of the sect was a Panwar Rajput named Jhambaji, who was born in a village of Bikaner State in A.D. 1451. His father had hitherto remained childless, and being greatly oppressed by this misfortune had been promised a son by a Muhammadan Fakir. After nine months Jhambaji was born and showed his miraculous origin in various ways, such as producing sweets from nothing for the delectation of his companions. Until he was thirty-four years old he spoke no word and was employed in tending his father's cattle. At this time a Brahman was sent for to get him to speak, and on confessing his failure, Jhambaji showed his power by lighting a lamp with a snap of his fingers and spoke his first word. He adopted the life of a teacher and went to reside on a sandhill some thirty miles south of Bikaner. In 1485 a fearful famine desolated the country, and Jhambaji gained an enormous number of disciples by providing food for all who would declare their belief in him. He is said to have died on his sandhill at the good old age of eighty-four, and to have been buried at a spot about a mile distant from it. A further account says that his body remained suspended for six months in the bier without decomposing. His name Jhambaji was a contraction of Achambha (The Wonder), with the honorific suffix _ji_.

Precepts of Jhambaji.

"The sayings (_shabd_) of Jhambaji, to the number of one hundred and twenty, were recorded by his disciples, and have been handed down in a book (_pothi_) which is written in the Nagari character, and in a Hindu dialect similar to Bagri and therefore probably a dialect of Rajasthani. The following is a translation of the twenty-nine precepts given by him for the guidance of his followers: 'For thirty days after childbirth and five days after a menstrual discharge a woman must not cook food. Bathe in the morning. Commit no adultery. Be content. Be abstemious and pure. Strain your drinking-water. Be careful of your speech. Examine your fuel in case any living creature be burnt with it. Show pity to living creatures. Keep duty present to your mind as the teacher bade. Do not steal. Do not speak evil of others. Do not tell lies. Never quarrel. Avoid opium, tobacco, _bhang_ and blue clothing. Flee from spirits and flesh. See that your goats are kept alive (not sold to Musalmans, who will kill them for food). Do not plough with bullocks. Keep a fast on the day before the new moon. Do not cut green trees. Sacrifice with fire. Say prayers; meditate. Perform worship and attain heaven.' And the last of the twenty-nine duties prescribed by the teacher: 'Baptise your children if you would be called a true Bishnoi.' [384]

Customs of the Bishnois in the Punjab.

"Some of these precepts are not strictly obeyed. For instance, though ordinarily they allow no blue in their clothing, yet a Bishnoi, if he is a police constable, is allowed to wear a blue uniform; and Bishnois do use bullocks, though most of their farming is done with camels. They also seem to be generally quarrelsome (in words) and given to use bad language. But they abstain from tobacco, drugs and spirits, and are noted for their regard for animal life, which is such that not only will they not themselves kill any living creature, but they do their utmost to prevent others from doing so. Consequently their villages are generally swarming with antelope and other animals, and they forbid their Musalman neighbours to kill them, and try to dissuade European sportsmen from interfering with them. They wanted to make it a condition of their settlement that no one should be allowed to shoot on their land, but at the same time they asked that they might be assessed at lower rates than their neighbours, on the ground that the antelope, being thus left undisturbed, did more damage to their crops; but I told them that this would lessen the merit (_pun_) of their actions in protecting the animals, and they must be treated just as the surrounding villages were. They consider it a good deed to scatter grain to pigeons and other birds, and often have a large number of half-tame birds about their villages. The day before the new moon (Amawas) they observe as a Sabbath and fast-day, doing no work in the fields or in the house. They bathe and pray three times a day, in the morning, afternoon and evening, saying 'Bishnu! Bishnu!' instead of the ordinary Hindu 'Ram! Ram.' Their clothing is the same as that of other Bagris, except that their women do not allow the waist to be seen, and are fond of wearing black woollen clothing. They are more particular about ceremonial purity than ordinary Hindus are, and it is a common saying that if a Bishnoi's food is on the first of a string of twenty camels and a man of another caste touches the last camel of the string, the Bishnoi would consider his food defiled and throw it away."

Initiation and baptism.

The ceremony of initiation is as follows: "A number of representative Bishnois assemble, and before them a Sadh or Bishnoi priest, after lighting a sacrificial fire (_hom_), instructs the novice in the duties of the faith. He then takes some water in a new earthen vessel, over which he prays in a set form (_Bishno gayatri_), stirring it the while with his string of beads (_mala_), and after asking the consent of the assembled Bishnois he pours the water three times into the hands of the novice, who drinks it off. The novice's scalp-lock (_choti_) is then cut off and his head shaved, for the Bishnois shave the whole head and do not leave a scalp-lock like the Hindus, but they allow the beard to grow, only shaving the chin on the father's death. Infant baptism is also practised, and thirty days after birth the child, whether boy or girl, is baptised by the priest (Sadh) in much the same way as an adult; only the set form of prayer is different, and the priest pours a few drops of water into the child's mouth, and gives the child's relatives each three handfuls of the consecrated water to drink; at the same time the barber clips off the child's hair. The baptismal ceremony has the effect of purifying the house, which has been made impure by the birth (_sutak_).

"The Bishnois do not revere Brahmans, but have priests of their own known as Sadh, who are chosen from among the laity. The priests are a hereditary class, and do not intermarry with other Bishnois, from whom, like Brahmans, they receive food and offerings. The Bishnois do not burn their dead, but bury them below the cattle-shed or in some place like a pen frequented by cattle. They make pilgrimages to the place where Jhambaji is buried to the south of Bikaner; here a tomb and temple have been erected to his memory, and gatherings are held twice a year. The sect observe the Holi in a different way from other Hindus. After sunset on that day they fast till the next forenoon when, after hearing read the account of how Prahlad was tortured by his infidel father, Hrianya Kasipu, for believing in the god Vishnu, until he was delivered by the god himself in his incarnation of Narsingh, the Man-lion, and mourning over Prahlad's sufferings, they light a sacrificial fire and partake of consecrated water, and after distributing sugar (_gur_) in commemoration of Prahlad's delivery from the fire into which he was thrown, they break their fast."

Nature of the sect.

The above interesting account of the Bishnois by Mr. Wilson shows that Jhambaji was a religious reformer, who attempted to break loose from the debased Hindu polytheism and arrogant supremacy of the Brahmans by choosing one god, Vishnu, out of the Hindu pantheon and exalting him into the sole and supreme deity. In his method he thus differed from Kabir and other reformers, who went outside Hinduism altogether, preaching a monotheistic faith with one unseen and nameless deity. The case of the Manbhaos, whose unknown founder made Krishna the one god, discarding the Vedas and the rest of Hinduism, is analogous to Jhambaji's movement. His creed much resembles that of the other Hindu reformers and founders of the Vaishnavite sects. The extreme tenderness for animal life is a characteristic of most of them, and would be fostered by the Hindu belief in the transmigration of souls. The prohibition of liquor is another common feature, to which Jhambaji added that of all kinds of drugs. His mind, like those of Kabir and Nanak, was probably influenced by the spectacle of the comparatively liberal creed of Islam, which had now taken root in northern India. Mr. Crooke remarks that the Bishnois of Bijnor appear to differ from those of the Punjab in using the Muhammadan form of salutation, _Salam alaikum_, and the title of Shaikhji. They account for this by saying they murdered a Muhammadan Kazi, who prevented them from burning a widow, and were glad to compound the offence by pretending to adopt Islam. But it seems possible that on their first rupture with Hinduism they were to some extent drawn towards the Muhammadans, and adopted practices of which, on tending again to conform to their old religion, they have subsequently become ashamed.

Bishnois in the Central Provinces.

In northern India the members of different castes who have become Bishnois have formed separate endogamous groups, of which Mr. Crooke gives nine; among these are the Brahman, Bania, Jat, Sunar, Ahir and Nai Bishnois. Only members of comparatively good castes appear to have been admitted into the community, and in the Punjab they are nearly all Jats and Banias. In the Central Provinces the caste forms only one endogamous group. They have _gotras_ or exogamous sections, the names of which appear to be of the titular or territorial type. Some of the _gotras_, Jhuria, Ajna, Sain and Ahir, [385] are considered to be lower than the others, and though they are not debarred from intermarriage, a connection with them is looked upon as something of a _mésalliance_. They are not consulted in the settlement of tribal disputes. No explanation of the comparatively degraded position of these septs is forthcoming, but it may probably be attributed to some blot in their ancestral escutcheon. The Bishnois celebrate their marriages at any period of the year, and place no reliance on astrology. According to their saying, "Every day is as good as Sankrant, [386] every day is as good as Amawas. [387] The Ganges flows every day, and he whose preceptor has taught him the most truth will get the most good from bathing in it."


Before a wedding the bride's father sends, by the barber, a cocoanut and a silver ring tied round it with a yellow thread. On the thread are seven, nine, eleven or thirteen knots, signifying the number of days to elapse before the ceremony. The barber on his arrival stands outside the door of the house, and the bridegroom's father sends round to all the families of his caste. The men go to the house and the women come singing to the barber, and rub turmeric on the boy. A married woman touches the cocoanut and waves a lighted lamp seven times round the bridegroom's head. This is meant to scare off evil spirits. On arrival at the bride's village the bridegroom touches the marriage-shed with the branch of a _ber_ or wild plum tree. The mother of the bride gives him some sugar, rubs lamp-black on his eyes and twists his nose. The bride and bridegroom are seated side by side on wooden boards, and after the caste priest (Sadh) has chanted some sacred verses, water is poured nine times on to the palms of the bridegroom, and he drinks it. They do not perform the ceremony of walking round the sacred pole. Girls are usually married at a very early age, sometimes when they are only a few months old. Subsequently, when the bridegroom comes to take his bride, her family present her with clothing and a spinning-wheel, this implement being still in favour among the Bishnois. When a widow is to be married again she is taken to her new husband's house at night, and there grinds a flour-mill five times, being afterwards presented with lac bangles.

Disposal of the dead

The dead are never burnt, but their bodies are weighted with sand-bags and thrown into a stream. The practice which formerly prevailed among the Bishnois of burying their dead in the courtyard of the house by the cattle-stalls has now fallen into desuetude as being insanitary. A red cloth is spread over the body of a woman, and if her maternal relatives are present each of them places a piece of cloth on the bier. After the funeral the mourning party proceed to a river to bathe, and then cook and eat their food on the bank. This custom is also followed by the Panwar Rajputs of the Wainganga Valley, but is forbidden by most of the good Hindu castes. No period of impurity is observed after a death, but on some day between the fourth and tenth days afterwards a feast is given to the caste-fellows.

Development into a caste.

The Bishnois of the Central Provinces are gradually becoming an ordinary Hindu caste, a fate which has several times befallen the adherents of Hindu reformers. Many of the precepts of Jhambaji are neglected. They still usually strain their water and examine their fuel before burning it to remove insects, and they scatter flour to feed the ants and grain for peacocks and pigeons. The wearing of blue cloth is avoided by most, blue being for an obscure reason a somewhat unlucky colour among the Hindus. But they now use bullocks for ploughing, and cut green trees except on the Amawas day. Many of them, especially the younger generation, have begun to grow the Hindu _choti_ or scalp-lock. They go on pilgrimage to all the Hindu sacred places, and no doubt make presents there to Brahman priests. They offer _pindas_ or sacrificial cakes to the spirits of their deceased ancestors. They observe some of the ordinary Hindu festivals, as the Anant Chaturthi, and some of them employ Brahmans to read the Satya Narayan Katha, the favourite Hindu sacred book. They still retain their special observance of the Holi. The admission of proselytes has practically ceased, and they marry among themselves like an ordinary Hindu caste, in which light they are gradually coming to be regarded. The Bishnois are usually cultivators or moneylenders by calling.

PART II (21st century)

Why Blackbucks: India Are So Important For Bishnois

Priyanka Bhatt, Why Blackbucks Are So Important For Bishnoi Community & Why They Wanted To Send Salman To Jail, April 5, 2018: India Times

Actor Salman Khan has been sentenced to five years in jail, twenty years after the killing of two blackbucks in Rajasthan while shooting for Bollywood film Hum Saath Saath Hain. The fandom of Salman is divided after this verdict as while his co-stars Saif Ali Khan, Sonali Bendre, Tabu and Neelam Kothari were acquitted. It was the Bishnoi community who brought this matter to the fore, creating the hullabaloo over the sentencing

The foundations of Bishnoi

The Bishnois are known for their love for nature worship and wildlife conservation. It was this community that pursued this matter with a conviction for the killings which is deemed to be a crime, not only towards the animal but also to their belief. The Bishnois of Jodhpur consider the blackbuck to be the reincarnation of their religious Guru Bhagwan Jambeshwar also known as Jambaji. A Bishnoi, therefore, would never tolerate the killing of wild animals or the cutting down of a tree. The origins of the Bishnois community go as far in the past as the late 15th Century.

One of the commandments of Bishnois says that they should not cut trees and save the environment. Another commandment talks about how protecting animals is a major cause of them. “Provide shelters for abandoned animals to avoid them from being slaughtered in abattoirs,” it reads, making clear the Bishnoi’s reverence of all life on the planet. This can be deemed as one of the biggest reasons the Bishnois wished to see any poacher convicted - even if it were a film star.

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