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The Bishnois and Manganiyars, children of the Rajasthani desert

The Bishnois and the Manganiyars are two of the most unique communities in the world. The former is known the world over as people who have dedicated their lives to save trees and the latter, a community entirely made up of musicians who grow up with ‘temporary’ names! C Gangadharan Menon takes a magical journey into the interiors of Rajasthan to meet these men and women and discovers an undiscovered paradise for travellers

This is an unusual ‘travel’ piece. It’s the story of two communities who could have only been born in the harsh deserts of Rajasthan — the conservationists called Bishnois, and the soul-stirring folk singers called Manganiyars. The Bishnois live in the villages around Jodhpur and the latter near Jaisalmer, both encircled by the severe sand dunes of the Thar desert.


The simmering desert of Kanoi

The Bishnois
In my search for the roots of Bishnois, the first halt is  Jodhpur from where my friend and guide, Omprakash Lol, drives me to Samrathal, the epicentre of a green revolution that happened here more than five centuries ago. This community was founded in 1485 by a saint named Lord Jambheshwar. Sitting on the shifting sand dunes of Samrathal, Jambheshwar meditated and saw visions of a green paradise.

He told his disciples that in these hostile conditions, every drop of water should be saved, every green leaf preserved, and every animal protected. In fact, one of the 29 tenets of the Bishnois is ‘Sar sathe rookh rahe, phir bhi sastho jaan’. It means, ‘Even if you have to give up your life to save a single tree, it’s still worth it.’ The Bishnois don’t just live by this principle, they even die for it.


A Manganiyar singing a soulful song. Pics/C Gangadharan Menon

In 1730, the Maharaja of Jodhpur sent an army into a Bishnoi village to hack down the khejri trees to reinforce his fort. A Bishnoi woman named Amritadevi got wind of the king’s plan. As the soldiers trooped in, she hugged a khejri tree and said, ‘Kill me before you cut this tree.’ And the soldier promptly beheaded her. Hearing this, villagers from Khejadli and 82 other villages nearby joined in, each one hugging a khejri tree. In a massacre that lasted all of seven days, 363 people laid down their lives: men, women and children. Nowhere in the world, at no point in the history of mankind, have so many people laid down their lives for the cause of conservation.


Bishnoi children imbibing what are perhaps their first lessons in music

Our next halt is the temple of Jambha. It is here that the Bishnois celebrate the martyrdom of their ancestors, every year. On this day, this 10 lakh-strong community rededicates itself to the protection of nature and all that dwells in it. This fair happens in Khejadli too, every year.

Every fair in Rajasthan is a celebration of life, in a riot of colours that contrast starkly with the dull brown landscape. But the fairs at Jambha and Khejadli have an added colour: green. For the Bishnois, it’s the colour of conserving nature against all odds.


Top: Lack of colour in the landscape is more than made up by the  Rajasthani attire

The Manganiyars
They are a community that has created ripples in the sand dunes of Rajasthan for many generations with their
soulful singing. My journey to the land of their birth takes me to a quaint village named Kanoi near the sand dunes of the Thar. I discover that there are no farmers here and no herdsmen. Music is their living, and every house has a musician. And even the walls of humble homes have  ears for music.


A Bishnoi woman in her traditional attire

Though most of the singers in this village are on musical tours across the world when I land up, I am fortunate enough to meet Ishaq Khan, the only singer who has stayed back for some personal reasons. He assembles the khadtaal and the khamaicha players in no time, and puts up a private performance on the verandah of his house. There is just my wife and me in the audience, apart from a bunch of kids who are,  unknowingly, imbibing the first lessons of a rich oral tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation.

From Kanoi, I go to Khuri about 60 kms away. Here I meet a septuagenarian singer, Jalal Khan, who explains why their community is unique. Though they are born Muslims, they sing praises of Allah and many Hindu gods with equal gusto. Interestingly, every performance of theirs starts with an invocation of Lord Krishna.

As I sit on Khan’s cot sipping tea laced with the salty taste of camel milk, he shares with me another peculiar tradition of the Manganiyars. Here, children are only given temporary nicknames. Once the community recognises them as great singers or musicians, they are allowed to choose a name of their liking. And they will be then known to the world by that name. Talk about earning a name for oneself.

But then Khan points out an anomaly. One of the most well-known Manganiyar singers, is called Kachra Khan. How come he chose such a self-effacing name for himself? Therein hangs a tale.  For many years, Kachra’s parents were childless. When they heard about a Sufi saint who had come visiting their village, they went to see him. The Sufi saint told them that they will soon have not one but two children. Provided they agree to his condition. He said, ‘Your first child will be born a good singer.

When the time comes, let him choose his name. But your second son will be born a genius. You should name him Kachra.’ The bewildered couple agreed but wanted to know the reason behind this strange command. The saint clarified, ‘Though he will be born a genius, and will get fame at a very young age, success would go to his head and cause his downfall. The name Kachra will help him stay firmly rooted to the ground, all through his life.’

In the simmering sand dunes behind Khan’s house, I see the reason why the Sufi saint said that fame and fortune are just mirages. You think they are real, but they don’t exist.

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