Kashmir’s Chinar Identity

Genes apart, Kashmir’s identity basket has the magnificent Chinar shade protection for more than a millennium. Ubeer Naqushbandi details the mighty tree’s cultural significance and the desperation of fragile voices to help Bouine improve its girth, shade and spread

A young couple meeting under the shades of Chinar in a Srinagar park. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

It was painful for raconteur Zareef Ahmad Zareef, when two majestic Chinars were axed at present-day Abdullah Bridge in 1984. Pained over ‘Kashmir’s heritage’ being vandalised, he tied up with like-minded Bansi Parmu and sat on axed trunks of the mighty Chinars. These two Chinars had been planted by the English Resident (official agent) to Kashmir in 1880.

“What is the need axe these Chinars, if bridge’s location can be diverted,” Zareef had agitated. As the media accommodated the concern, it gradually became a headache for the government to the extent that one day Chief Minister, flanked by Divisional Commissioner, Mohammad Shafi Pandit and Deputy Commissioner, Srinagar, Ghulam Qadir Pardesi arranged a presser, only to deny that axed order was ever given

The protest continued till one day a pot-bellied Theakidar approached Zareef. “Why are you after these petty Chinars,” the contractor told Zareef.  He took out a bundle of notes from his pocket and offered them to Zareef. “Relax for some days in Pahalgam,” “You are making a big mistake. I have got approval to axe down 59 Chinars from Zewan to General Bus stand Batamaloo.”  Zareef refused to be bribed but he could do nothing beyond that protest.

It did, however, led Zareef to set  Bouine Bachao Committee, with Parmu as its secretary. This fragile movement marked the beginning of an initiative to preserve the ‘ecological heritage’. In an immediate follow-up, the Floriculture Department formed Chinar Development Authority (CDA) in 1986 with an avowed motive to preserve existing Chinars and improve the numbers of the mighty Chinars.

A Tradition

Before 1947, it was an unstated norm that every village Chowkidar would plant a Bouine (Chinar) on a four or three-way junction. After it was planted, it would make an entry in the revenue records.

Chinar axing and chopping is a routine scene for the last many years. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

In Kashmir, Bouine is merely not a majestic tree alone. Besides being a universe of shade and a beauty to the landscape, over the centuries, it has found its place in spaces of faith, irrespective of religion.

“Be it Muslims or Hindus, Bouine acted as mosque and temple respectively,” Zareef said. “People used to plant them around springs in ancient times. That is why the combination of Chinar and spring is a peculiarity of many revered shrines and temples in Kashmir.”

Mughal Myths

It is just a myth that the Mughals introduced this magnificent tree to Kashmir. It has been part of Kashmir’s antiquity. “Mughals only enhanced Chinar by planting it manifold. Lured by its mesmerizing beauty, they used it as an ornamental addition to the gardens they laid. Mughals romanticised its beauty,” believes Zareef. They were in love with the tree. “That is perhaps why when Jamia Masjid gutted down during Aurangzeb’s tenure, the first thing he inquired about was the Chinars in its lawns, insisting even 100 Aurangzebs’ could not make one Chinar.”

Nothing announces the arrival of autumn more emphatically than fire-emitting Chinars which turn the surrounding milieu ferrous with their crimson leaf litter.

The fifth-century Gilgit manuscripts – handed over to Pandit Nehru by Sheikh Abdullah during tribal raids in 1947, Chinar imprints bordered on sides. This suggests that Chinar existed in Kashmir even 1500 years before the Mughals occupied Kashmir.

Sajjad Ahmed, a historian said the tree seemingly has been imported from Iran’s Chinar-abundant Sheeraz. Botanist Akhtar H Malik said the presumption is that Chinar is a native of Greece, from where it spread to Europe, Central Asia and further eastward across the Hindukush range, into Afghanistan, NW Pakistan and Kashmir. “Except for its home in Greece, where it regenerates by seed naturally owing to its terrain, elsewhere it is planted,” he said.

Burzahama, Kashmir’s Neolithic site (3000-2000 BC), has revealed charcoal deposits believed to have been from Chinar wood.

Oxygen Machines

Botanists know the Bouine as Platanus orientalis, a huge oxygen machine producing 20 gallons of oxygen. Chinar is mighty with a huge gestation period. They achieve a maximum height of 30 feet and take almost a century to reach their peak height and girth. Though its roots are shallow, they are the strongest against speedy windows unlike over trees. Tree’s very large broad and thick leaves are prized for the shade and coolness during summers.

The leaves will finally fall to the ground and become the chief source of charcoal for the locals who collect it from half-burnt chinar leaves and fill their ‘kangris’ (earthen firepots woven in willow wicker).

Chinar (attributed to Emperor Jehangir, when he said chi naar, what, a fire?)  is a Persian word. Outside Kashmir, however, Bouine has different names – Plane, Sycamore, Buttonwood (USA), Platani (Greece), Doolt (Arabic), Shing Shing (China).

A History Record

 When Emperor Akbar and prince Jehangir once went for Kakav hunt (waterfowl hunting) in Chadoora’s Kakav ring, Kashmir’s unpredictable weather changed. A heavy hailstorm started. The royals, according to Abul Fazal’s Aan i Akbari took refuge under a mighty Chinar – they had 34 people and five horses.

Chinar’s have their own beauty. They take a generation to grow and they age, it also takes a long time. Before actually dying they develop a huge hollow. Traditionally, this khoukhur (hollow) was believed to be the abode of Djins. Any student from MP School at Baghi Dilawar Khan would tell about the Chinar that was possessed. Baharistani Shahi, a medieval history chronicle has mentioned that in 1339 when Mughals finally ousted the local Sultans, the latter took a shelter in a Bouine.

A couple walks in the Chinar shades in Srinagar. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

These grooves have been home to mendicants and darveshs for a long time. In the sprawling Eidgah, one Bouine was called Nafl Bouine, perhaps where some people would offer pre-dawn Nafl prayers. It is the spot where a sprawling graveyard emerged in the 1990s. Similar Chinars’ existed in Naseem Bagh’s Chinarbagh, where now romance and research dominate the scene.

Part of Literature

Kashmir’s twelfth century, standard-bearer saint and preacher, Sheikh Nooruddin Reshi has used Bouine in his shruks so has his monotheist predecessor, Laleshwari done in her vakhs. In Kashmir, a mother is usually referred to as Sheeheej Bouine, the cool Chinar. Sheikh even drew parallels between a Bouine and a good wife.

Keanchaan Raein Cheay Buini,
Langeh Langeh Pheeraan Karaan Waav
Kechaan Raein Cheay Chaapal Houni,
Karan Toun Toun Ti Dewan Naar

(Some (fortunate) have wives like cool Chinar and some (unfortunate) have wives like biting bitches who bark a lot and set things afire)

Bouine has influenced poets a lot. Mahmood Ghami, Mehjoor and Mirza Qalamudin Shaida were all mesmerized by this tree. The enchanting beauty of the Chinar made Mathematician, Qazi Ghulam Mohammad to spare time from numbers and equations to sing songs for the plane tree. Safakadal born poet, Ahmed Shaheen who died in 1947 on the other side of the LoC, gave vent to his longing for motherland through Chinar in his poem Daag Teh Dagh (a taint and a pain).

So powerful is the metaphor Chinar that Sheikh Abdullah named his biography, the Aatish e Chinar (Fire of Chinar), taking the lines from Allama Iqbal’s poetry:

 Jis Khak Kay Zameer Main Hou Aatish-e-Chinar,
Mumkin Nahin Ki Sard Hou Woh Khak-e-Arjmand

(The dust that carries in its conscience the fire of the Chinar, It is impossible for that celestial dust to cool down).

Chinar trees are being felled rapidly in Kashmir, although a recent ban has been enacted to curb cutting. Chinar trees are now required to be registered and are considered National Property of the State. Registered Chinars are painted white at their base. Increased awareness means most old Chinars are protected and looked after; however, some new Chinars must be cut as their growth can cause damage to roads and houses. Most people now view the Chinar as a matter of national pride.

The mesmerizing beauty of Chinar has not left Bollywood unscathed. Regardless of the storylines, almost every movie has a Chinar – Mission Kashmir, Lamha, Haider.  The autumn Chinar has invariably been used to exhibit a collateral space. From one of Kashmir’s female folk singers, Bouni Begum to the Boonyi, a key character in Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar The Clown, the Chinar is everywhere. It is in fact, a key symbol of Kashmir’s identity, like his long, loose gown, the Pheran, and the fire-pot, the Kangri.

The centrality of the Bouine has paved its way into the famed Kashmir handicrafts. For centuries now, the artisans have been using Chinar leaf as a lead motif in Sozni work, Gabba, Namda and other handicraft items. Even the Srinagar based 15-Corps has assumed the name of Chinar Corps.

Economic Utility

The drought-resistant tree leaves and bark have been used medicinally (outside Kashmir) and a fabric dye is made from its twigs and roots. Its timber (lacewood) is valued for furniture. Turks make tea from its leaves.

In Kashmir, a now-abandoned practice would use green Chinar leaves in packaging delicate things like mulberry, butter, mutton and cheese. This would help these easily contaminable items to stay nontoxic till consumption. Fallen and dried Chinar leaves have, however, remained a key ingredient of the charcoal that fuels Kangris during winters.

It was Chinar wood offering the strongest pistils, a hunting-gathering era tool devoured by the industrial revolution. However, Ghooshipar (mallet), required for dice meat for Kashmiri Wazwaan, remains unchanged.  Fancy items like key chains and flower vases are still made out of Chinar timber but legally axing Chinar is banned and nobody in Kashmir has a Chinar that he owns.

Vast Spread

In Kashmir, a place without a Bouine cannot even be imagined. Dalgate’s Chinar Bagh on the banks of Chuntikoul has been the address of Western tourists for more than a century.  Bouine Zou at Sangam Shadipora, famous for its stunted Chinars, also became popular after the mortal remains of Indira Gandhi were immersed there in Jhelum.

Char Chinari, the four-Chinar island, believed to have been laid by Murad Baksh, brother of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, is part of every tourist guidebook for almost half a millennium. It recently saw the replacement of two decayed Chinars that had reduced it to Dou Chinari, literally. Officials said they initially planted two saplings but they could not grow. For the first time in history, they took two grown-up trees and planted on the island. It remains to be seen if they can adapt to the aquatic surroundings fast.

An axed Chinar in Shalimar Garden Srinagar in 2014. Photo: Bilal Bahadur

The famous Bouine groove of Arigam reminds everyone of Mehjoor, as eight Chinars were planted by him, there. Haft Chinar, near Solina, which was made famous by the seven Chinars, has no Chinar left but the name remains. Sat Booni at Lal Bazar and Sati Booni at Zakoora in the city outskirts are among the important Chinars clusters in the city of Kashmir.

So powerful is the Chinar that it helped some people to live decades after their death because they had planted a tree. Hasheh Noshi Henz Bouine, at Shalpur in Darrand Ganderbal, is reduced to a ruminant now. This, however, does not erase the legend that this Chinar was grown by a Pandit duo, a mother in law and a daughter-in-law. Gaffar Poulicen Bouine at Naidyar Rainawari helps people still remember a cop, Gaffar, who had planted it. Ramzaan Mamein Bouine at Awantipora was a key shade for pedestrians to rest till it was axed for expanding the highway.

At Khrew Shoor, there is Asaan Mamin Bouine. Near Ramji Kak’s temple at Maharaj Gunj is Bouine Yarbal, Aweeraen Bouine at Karan Nagar border in Batamaloo, Langar Bouine at Waris Khan Bagh, which survived since the days of Akbar, Thakeh Bouine (a spot for rest) in sprawling Malikha cemetry, Nayeid Bouine around which Nayeid Mohalla once existed in Shahr e Khaas and Bateh Bouine at Baghiyaas Chattabal. Once, the cluster of Chinar’s around Polo Ground would be the main spot for testing the driving skills.

However, there is a debate and dispute over the oldest surviving Chinar in Kashmir. Officials believe that the Chattergam’s Bouine at Batapora (Chadoora) is the oldest. With a girth of 100ft, this majestic Chinar is believed to have been planted by Sufi saint Hazrat Syed Qasim in 1348 AD. The second oldest is reported to be in Bijebhara’s Padshai Bagh which has a girth of 70ft. However, after this Chinar was destroyed in September 2014 floods, Pazwalpora’s majestic in Shalimar is stated to be the second oldest.

Successive Massacres

While regeneration has remained a pathetically slow process, Chinar’s have had successive massacres, mostly for development. The first major wave was during the filling of Nallahmar in the 1970s, which saw a road being laid on the canal that drained Dal lake and helped mistake Srinagar as Venice. Then came the 90ft road from Soura to Nagbal on the city outskirts. The most recent was road widening from Pantha Chowk to Sempora.

The browning Chinars contrast strikingly with the other shrubbery while turning gardens, parks and roads into a palette of colours.

Over the years, some major Chinar gardens have vanished. One garden was in Srinagar city’s outskirts at Ellahi Bagh. Laid by Bashir Khan Rizvi, Mughal Hakim Nazim (governor), it is reduced to a few Chinars now. Population explosion and urbanisation have also contributed to the stunted spread of Chinar.

Official Response

Officials at Chinar Development Authority (CDA) mandated to take care of the tree say the situation is not “panicky”. Their estimation suggests there are 4485 Chinars in Ganderbal, 5021 in Anantnag, 2330 in Pulwama, 2282 in Shopian, 1848 in Kulgam, and 1470 in Bandipora, and 2459 in Budgam. In Srinagar and Baramulla, CDA maintains it is still continuing and current numbers are at 6366 and 3961 respectively. Pre-1947 Kashmir had around 43000 Chinars. Now it is less by around 10,000.

Urbanisation may not be axing the trees directly but people do use alternatives to slow poison the Chinars. Zareef said there are instances where Yengeh, asafoetida is being applied to roots on a consistent basis to push the mighty tree into a slow death.

The leaves and bark have been used medicinally. A fabric dye has been made from twigs and roots. The timber, often called lacewood, is figured and valuable for indoor furniture.

Now the administration in Srinagar has identified a 400-kanal stretch on the Zabarwan foothills overlooking the Dal Lake, where it has started creating a Chinar garden. Tentatively named Chinar Zaar, it is aimed at creating yet another garden to attract tourists and Bollywood. The Tulip Garden, laid by Ghulam Nabi Azad has been the first success story after the Mughal era.

Earlier, Choudhary Lal Singh, the then forest minister of Jammu and Kashmir had planted nearly 40,000 Chinar saplings in the Jammu region between 2016 and 2018. For the first year, they were reported progressing phenomenally. What is the state of their growth right now remains unknown.

(The report written in late 2016 was curated at the desk last week.)

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