On a September morning in 1730, a party of men sent by Abhay Singh, the ruler of Jodhpur, reached Khejadli or Khejarli village populated by the Bishnoi community. They had been ordered to cut Khejdi trees for the construction of the king’s new palace.
The soldiers wielding axes reached the village which had a lot of greenery even amid the Thar Desert. The king’s men started to cut a tree outside the house of Amrita Devi. Seeing the men axing the trees, Amrita Devi asked them to stop. The men sought a bribe from her to stop cutting the trees. An angry Amrita Devi said giving a bribe was an insult to her faith. She is believed to have said, “sar santey rukh rahe to bhi sasto jaan (If a tree is saved at the cost of one’s head, it is worth it).
Amrita Devi then went towards a tree and hugged it. The men asked her to move away as they had orders from the king to cut down the trees. Amrita Devi refused and retorted that they would have to chop her along with the tree. The soldiers were taken aback but being duty-bound to carry out the king’s orders, they cut Amrita Devi along with the tree.
The soldiers went ahead with their task, cutting the three young women also along with trees.
The villagers who were watching the goings-on silently summoned Bishnois from nearby villages. The Bishnois decided that for every tree cut, one person would voluntarily sacrifice his or her life.
Initially, the elderly embraced trees and were axed. To add salt to their wounds, the leader of the royal party mocked the villagers saying they were sacrificing the unwanted old people.
Hurt by the taunt, young men and women and even children went and embraced trees and were cut down.
The royal party was shaken by the episode and returned to Jodhpur and narrated the incident to the king.
A shocked Abhay Singh rushed to Khejadli and sought forgiveness from the villagers. He promised to never cut a Khejdi tree. He also issued a royal decree stating that cutting trees and hunting animals in Bishnoi villages was banned.
It is to honour the memory of these martyrs that the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests declared September 11 as National Forest Martyrs Day. In Rajasthan, a ‘Shaheed Mela’ or martyrs fair is held every year in Khejadli, about 25 km from Jodhpur. A statue of Amrita Devi and an epigraph, with names of all the 363 martyrs, have been put up by the state government at Khejadli.
Women took the lead in protecting trees by hugging them and protesting against deforestation and saving the environment.
The significance of Khejdi
Prosopis Cineraria is the botanical name of the Khejdi tree which is the state tree of Rajasthan. Khejdi grows in about two-thirds area of the state and has immense cultural and economic significance.
The tree is hardy and can survive in the harsh desert climate with temperatures ranging from 0 to 50 degrees Celsius and annual rainfall of 70-80 cm. The tree binds well with the soil and its roots can grow deep in search of water which helps it survive in the arid climate.
The tree is revered in Rajasthan as in other parts of India as it is believed to be associated with Lord Rama. During Dussehra, the Rajputs worship the Khejdi tree as the belief is Lord Ram worshipped this tree before the final battle with Ravana in which he was killed.
The tree provides green and dry fodder to animals and cattle. During winter when no other green fodder is available, the branches of the Khejdi are lopped and given to animals. The leaves have a high nutritive value.
The leaves of the tree are used as compost. The wood from the tree is used as firewood. The fruit of the tree called Sangri is cooked along with Ker and eaten as a vegetable.
The bark has medicinal properties and is used to treat leprosy and boils on the skin.
The Martyrs mela
The annual fete at Khejadli is akin to a pilgrimage for the Bishnoi community who come from near and far to attend. But attendance is not limited to Bishnois and people from all communities join in and pay respects to the martyrs. The gathering is being held for the last 45 years in Khejadli.
This year, the fair was held after a gap of two years due to the Covid pandemic. The fair began with a sprinkling of sacred water and a yagna was performed. Hundreds of people took part and made offerings. After that, a flag of the Bishnoi community was hoisted.
Discussions with experts on the theme of environmental protection were held at the day-long fair. Environment experts, government officials, and academics took part in the discussions. Those who are working to protect the environment were feted.
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)