Opium and curry: The Indian tribe that welcomes you with drugs

bishnoi and opium

Rajasthan's Bishnoi people -- colorful dresses, colorful lives.
It may seem an odd way to greet visitors, but the Bishnoi villagers of western Rajasthan are just being polite when they offer you a swig of opium. 
Which of course makes it churlish to refuse -- not least because the ceremony performed by this isolated community is something to behold in itself. 
My host takes a small ball of dry opium and smashes it to a powder in a copper bowl. He adds water very slowly -- not a drop more than necessary -- and after filtering it several times through a sieve, the precious mixture, known as amal, is poured into my cupped hands.
It is disappointingly thin, bitter and there is no instant hit. Nonetheless, it is a very generous gesture of hospitality. 

Opium and conservation

bishnoi opium making
The opium drink is prepared ceremonially for visitors to the village.
Opium, officially banned in India, still gets through by surreptitious means to this ancient sect of tree-huggers. This is no throwaway description -- these are brave folk for whom the phrase could have been invented. 
In 1730 hundreds of them laid down their lives by hugging trees to stop them being felled. They were beheaded, but when the Maharajah of Jodhpur heard of their sacrifice he commanded the lumberjacks to quit chopping trees, as well as heads, in the area. 
Today the Bishnoi are lauded for their dedication to conservation and authorities turn a blind eye to their use of opium for ritual purposes. For “rituals,” read everything from cementing a betrothal to greeting complete strangers. 
On the 40-kilometer drive southeast from Jodhpur, my guide explains the Bishnoi version of taking tea with the in-laws. On wedding days, the bride's father offers opium mixed with water three times to the groom's father, who takes three sips directly from the other's palm before returning the favor. 
It’s an ice-breaker repeated even when outsiders visit, though Western sensibilities are respected by offering visitors amal to drink from their own hands. 
Occasionally saffron is used in place of opium.

Rooted in religion

bishnoi cooking
Visitors are also treated to traditional foods, such as roti and curry.
The word Bishnoi -- which means 29 -- refers to the 20 Hindu and nine Muslim principles that the sect observes, a personal set of commandments with revererence for nature at its core.
The Bishnoi have ultimate respect for deer as well as cows, believing them to be ancestors, and protect them from hunters. They will even breast-feed orphaned deer, and they never eat meat. 
They throw their firewood on the ground three times to make sure they’ve got rid of any insects in the woodpile so they don’t kill them when they set it alight.
They filter their water at least twice before putting the pot on the fire to let any tiny bugs escape into the red earth. 
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of Bishnoi life is the now supposedly obsolete "stud system." 
While enjoying a post-opium meal -- pumpkin curry, fiery chilies and millet chapatis -- I learn that as recently as 50 years ago, the best-looking man in the area was encouraged to sleep with as many eligible females as he could for a decade.
He was then summarily beheaded, or at the very least, excommunicated for life. 
The stud system has now been outlawed -- though that’s what they say about opium reaching the villages too. 
getting there
Jodhpur is a one-hour flight or 10-hour overnight train journey from Delhi. Sajjan Singh, the proprietor of Surya Kunj homestay (www.mahindrahomestays.com) can arrange visits to the Bishnoi