The trouble we’ll go to for a genuine ethnic experience!
It’s supposed to be illegal, even in India, to lick opium from a man’s hand. We thrill-seeking rebels did it anyway.
The Bishnoi people are unusual, even in a country where we visitors constantly find things way out of the ordinary.
They follow the 29 tenets (bis-nai means ‘twenty-nine’) of one Guru Jambeshwar, a chap who 540 years ago preached that damaging the environment means harming yourself. All very good, in our opinion.
Modern posters depict him looking rather like Santa Claus.
Bishnois avoid killing animals and felling green trees.
According to our guide, and confirmed by a visit to wikipedia…
“In 1730, 363 Bishnoi men, women and children gave their lives to protect trees from cutting by the king’s men. This incident happened in Khejarli which is a village in Jodhpur district of Rajasthan, India 26 km south-east of the city of Jodhpur. In this incident 363 Bishnois sacrificed their lives while protecting trees, by hugging to them.”
There aren’t a lot of trees to hug in the desert of Rajasthan. Maybe the Bishnois have been fighting a losing battle or it’s just a function of the climate.
The village itself is spotlessly clean, which immediately distinguishes it from the rest of the country, where we’ve now become so accustomed to piles of garbage that we only notice its absence.
There’s a cluster of round, thatched, white-painted huts, with cow dung drying until needed as fuel, stacks of hay, a tethered calf, women in colourful saris working in the fields, a small terracotta ‘stove’ we later discover is a fridge and a baby swinging in a basket cradle on a veranda.
Our host wakes his little girl and holds her up, bleary-eyed, for us to admire.
Then it’s time for what our guide has promised would be a highlight of the visit – the opium ceremony.
The Bishnois’ use of opium is apparently ignored by the authorities and accepted as part of life. It attracts a few paying tourists like us.
We’re seated on convenient benches (they must have been warned we were coming) around pots of seeds and elaborate filtration apparatus.
Our host is looking cheerful, though a little glassy-eyed and spaced out, so our guide takes over the task of grinding seeds with a pestle and mortar, adding water, and letting it drip slowly through the filter into a carved wooden jug.
The opium tea is ready. Our host goes through a ritual of chanting and hand gestures, ‘offering it to the gods’, according to our guide.
Why the gods would be interested in opium that we, not they, are about to consume is not fully explained. We are guests. Ours not to question why.
Our time has come. ‘The traditional way to serve opium is for the guests to drink it from their host’s hand.’ Okay. Fine. Whatever you say.
Tell me this at any other party and I’d probably say it was getting late and I had an early start next morning and should be making a move. But this is India. We’re here for the cultural experience.
I have a nasty suspicion that Bishnoi people have a good old laugh, thinking up what stupid thing they can get tourists to do by telling them it’s part of ‘traditional’ culture.
They invent some weird ritual, make odd gestures and chant in an incomprehensible language, ‘These suckers will fall for anything’, all the while trying to keep a straight face.
Suck the opium off the toe of your host’s wife, lick it out of the ear of a goat? We’ll do anything.
We thank our hosts and hand over a modest contribution towards the cost of the opium. It’s ‘very expensive’, says our guide. Whatever its authenticity, we’ve very much enjoyed the show and the company of these people.
As we’re leaving, another car is pulling up, and another group of westerners spills out, taking shots of the charming ethnic village.
Make of that what you will.
I’ve seen Cheese Market: The Show in Alkmaar, attended ‘traditional’ Maori ceremonies and sat through numerous folkloric performances. Taken out of their context there is invariably something phoney about them. Done well, they can still be fun. What do you think? Let us know if you’ve experienced anything similar.
The writer was the guest of Railbookers and travelled on the Maharajas Express.