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.

Tray of dry opium and other secret ingredients in a copper bowl

My host takes a tray of dry opium and other secret ingredients 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 is mixed with Tabaco and is smoked as a cultural ritual.

 

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.

A photo of an opium filtering sieve

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.

Old Indian man filtering Opium
Old Indian man filtering Opium

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 reverence 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 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 and filter their water at least twice before putting the pot on the fire to let any tiny bugs escape into the red earth.

Photo of an old man's hands
Indian man smoking Opium through a pipe

The shoot:

 

This shoot was very difficult to arrange, although we were welcomed into the house, I had to give guarantees that I would not shoot any images that showed the people that were making the opium, as it is illegal to make in India. Bishnoi reminds me a lot of Groot Marico: it’s illegal to make Mampoer, but once the locals get to know you, they will share their Mampoer and their stories with you. They were very friendly people and throughout the whole opium shoot I kept on showing my host the images to show to him that I had no faces in the images. Once we finished the shoot the host asked me if I wouldn’t shoot an image of him smoking the opium. I just laughed and jumped at the opportunity. He was so happy with his images that he gave me permission to use it.  This is just part of the fun being a Photojournalist, you never know how a shoot is going to turn out.

 

For the shoot I used a Canon 7D with a Canon 35mm F/1.4 lens.  For all the objects I used an Octabox (90cm Deep Octabox) with a Profoto flash. My camera setting was 1/250, F8 and ISO 100. I like to use the flash to get the vibrant colours and also for sharpness.

Diagram showing light setup for shoot

For the smoking man I used an Octabox (90cm Deep Octabox) with a Profoto flash and a speedlight to highlight the smoke. My camera settings stayed the same.

light diagram to highlight smoke