If you ever get labeled a tree hugger, as I have, remember the origin of the term. In 1730, 363 men and women from the village of Khejarli in India were slaughtered by soldiers who came to fell their forests for firewood in order to construct a new palace for Maharajah Abhay Singh.
For more than 300 years the people of the Bishnoi sect of Hinduism had lovingly cared for their ecosystem. When they heard their trees being cut down they did not hesitate to embrace them because they understood that their lives and that of the trees and other living things were interwoven. One woman, a villager named Amrita Devi, led her people and placed her body between the soldiers and the trees. After that her three daughters and other villagers joined her. They refused to leave and for that they were massacred.
When the Maharajah had learned what his soldiers had done he felt deeply ashamed and issued a royal decree which outlawed the chopping down of any trees in Bishnoi villages. The Khejarli massacre is one of the first known environmental protests. Even today, the forests of Jodhpur have protections gained from this heroic act. And it didn’t end there.
In 1974, inspired by this incredible act of sacrifice, a group of women in Uttar Pradesh, India, hugged trees to stave off foresters in their villages. This led to the Chipko Movement (chipko meaning “to cling to”) that spread throughout India. Thanks to these women, and all the people who joined them, millions of trees in the Himalayan region were spared from clear cutting and extensive logging.
So if you ever get called a tree hugger, wear it as a badge of honour.
Kenn Orphan May 2021
*Painting courtesy of the National Museum of Dehli.
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