Dying Chinars

A steady decline in the number of chinars has led many social activists to question our ability to preserve this priceless heritage. Majid Maqbool reports

Considered to be the symbol and soul of Kashmir, the majestic Chinar trees dotting the landscape of the valley are facing a steady decline in numbers. Concrete structures, that have come up in traditional Chinar sanctuaries over the years, and illegal felling of Chinars is further dwindling their numbers across the valley.  The number of Chinars has gone down by more than half to just 19,849 in 2005 from an estimated 42,000 trees in 1970s.

M.S. Wadoo, former chief conservator of forests, has worked on Chinars and documented their decline. Wadoo is also credited to have discovered the oldest and the biggest living Chinar in Asia, which is located within a mosque premises at Chattergam in Budgam district. Prior to its discovery in 2001, the Chinar tree in Drashikoh Bagh in Bijbehara, Islamabad district was considered to be the biggest tree in the sub-continent. During his service of more than 30 years, Wadoo surveyed more than a thousand Chinars in the valley, and in Doda district.

In his book titled, The Trees Of Our Heritage, published in 2007, Wadoo chronicles the number of chinars and the reasons behind their declining number in the valley. He puts the total number of Chinars in all the major districts of the valley (ending 2004) as 17, 124.

“We have lost 25,369 grand green trees within a time span of 34 years and the loss percent per years works out to be 1.77,” Wadoo writes. “We have lost about 746 chinar trees every year so far. In case this rate of destruction continues, we may lose all the trees available with us at present in the span of next 22 years,” he warns.

He says the Chinar over the years has been “killed, hacked and felled indiscriminately”, both by the government and the common man. “In the name of development and prosperity, Bune (Kashmiri for chinar) sites were replaced by cement structures and macadam and tarred roads,” Wadoo writes in the book. “Greedy and unscrupulous people were in a position to obtain a clear chit to fell a green Bune after getting it classified as dry and dead through the corruption ridden administration.”

Chinars were dried up by debarking, girdling, branch cutting, suffocating and root debarking, he says.

Wadoo says the plight of Bune in Srinagar’s Bagh-i-Naseem is “sad and pathetic”. “The trees are drying up rapidly from the tops. The branches are rotting away. Some pathological disease has crept in these trees,” he writes in his book.

“The number of Chinars is declining in the valley as people don’t plant that many Chinar saplings as they used to in the past,” says Director Floriculture Department, Harcharan Pal Singh. “We give out around 4000 to 5000 Chinar saplings every year to the people for plantation,” he says.

It takes around 150 years for a Chinar to grow to its full size.

“People cut dried out Chinars, most of the times without permission,” he says. “People from outside the valley approach us to take Chinar saplings but outside the valley the Chinar does not grow as big and majestic as it grows in the valley.”

The Jammu and Kashmir government created a Chinar Development Office in the floriculture department in 1986 to preserve Chinars and check its felling. But the post of Chinar Development Officer, meant to overlook the preservation of existing Chinars, no longer exists now.  Officials say there was no staff for the Chinar Development Authority.

Although the floriculture department gives out chinar saplings to people for plantation, its decline continues, says Wadoo.

Wadoo says that in Srinagar city the Chinars are dying and the authorities seem unconcerned. “Near J&K Bank headquarters, there are many Chinars that have dried up,” he says. “Similarly in Bachpora, there is a big Chinar which has dried up.” He says a traditional Chinar sanctuary near Abdullah Bridge was destroyed by filling up of the area which affected the growth of the Chinars, and shops came up around it.

History:
Mughals are believed to have introduced Chinar tree in the valley when Akber annexed the valley within his domain in 1586 C.E. “It is a historical fact that Akbar planted about 1200 plants of Bune near the shrine of Hazratbal and engaged sufficient watch and ward personal to protect the trees,” Wadoo writes in his book.

Wadoo mentions in his book that Mughals planted the tree on all important routes, parks and gardens. “They extended royal protection to the tree and declared it as royal tree, which could not be cut down even if found growing in private lands,” he says.

Besides, Wadoo says, Lal Ded in her wakhs (poems) refers to a noble faithful wife and compares her to a Shehej Bune (pleasantly cool shaded Bune) – “which indicates that the Bune existed in the valley much before this period,” writes Wadoo.

“In the past if the monarchs like Mughals, Pathans and Maharajas would love the Bune,” says Wadoo. “Can’t we simply protect this priceless heritage now?”

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