It was a Tuesday - Tuesday the 10th of Bhadrapad (an Indian lunar month), 1730. Amrita Devi was at home with her daughters in the village of Kherjali, near Jodhpur, churning milk, when she heard the sound of a tree being cut down.

She was alarmed. Trees were never felled in her village, because she and her neighbours were Bishnoi, people of a religion that forbade hunting animals or cutting down trees. These were among 29 principles (bishnoi means 29) laid down by the religion's founder Guru Jambho Ji in the 15th century. By following them, the Bishnoi had made their villages green and fertile even in the middle of the Rajasthan desert. It turned out that the local Maharajah's men were cutting down trees for wood to fire lime kilns at a new palace. Amrita Devi ran and hugged a tree that was about to be chopped down, calling out one of the Guru's sayings: 'Sar santey rookh rahe to bhi sasto jaan' - 'If a tree is saved even at the cost of one's head, it is worth it'.

The men cut off her head. Her three young daughters - Asu, Ratni and Baghu - followed her to hug the tree, and were cut down too. The people of Kherjali and the surrounding Bishnoi villages decided that one of them would give up their life for every tree that was chopped down - and 363 died before the felling stopped.

The Maharajah, shamed by the villagers' courage, apologised, and issued a royal decree, engraved on copper plate. The new law prohibited the cutting down of trees or the hunting of animals in Bishnoi villages, on pain of severe punishment.

The villages have continued to be green oases in a harsh environment down through the centuries. Flora and fauna are said to flourish wherever the 6 million Bishnoi are found. Deer can be seen grazing in their fields without fear; they can count on food and water in even the worst drought.

Some say that these first environmental direct-action protestors inspired Mahatma Gandhi to develop his successful strategy of civil disobedience. Certainly they gave rise to the modern tree-hugging movement, Chipko (meaning 'cling to'), which has spread across the Himalayas. Through it, local people - mainly women - have hugged trees to protect them from loggers, saving many forests and thus stopping the precious topsoil their villages need to grow food from being swept off bare hillsides by the rains.

      illustration based on photo: Dutta/UNEP/Topham  
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