CultureHeritage

Planted in 1374, the worlds oldest Chinar tree is in Kashmir

Chinar has been part of the cultural sphere of Kashmir for centuries. The majestic tree dots the picturesque valley and stretches through its scenic landscape. It is part of its heritage and an inseparable part of the soul of Kashmir. Popularly known as booyn in Koshur, the word Chinar comes from the Persian lexicon that can be translated as “What a fire!”.

The unique composure of the tree gives it the orange-red an autumn-like color. The leaves fall in mid-November and they appear again in early April. Eleven kilometers away from the main city of Kashmir, Budgam is home to the oldest Chinar tree of Asia which is also the largest in the world. Located in Chattergam Czodor of the county, the tree was planted by Sufi saint Syed-Abul Qasim Shah Hamdani in 1374 (646 years old up till 2020). In his book ‘The trees of our Heritage” it was documented by Environmentalist Mohammad sultan Wadoo in 2007.

The tree is now part of the mosque maintenance and its fencing as a part of the preservation and promotion has been promised by the government. Many of the Chinar trees in Kashmir are much older than we can imagine. The second biggest tree in the valley is at the Mughal garden of Darah Shikoh Bagh in Bijbehara, in the Islamabad district. Despite being part of the Kashmiris cultural sphere and witness to all the political turmoil and radical shifts in the valley, no serious effort has been made to revive and preserve the trees. Just outside Shalimar garden Hamam, the Chinar tree is believed to be more than 500 years old. The untidy road passes between the Hamam and the Chinar tree. The heavy movement of the trees has a serious impact on the roots of Chinar which can disrupt the growth and health of the tree. The obstruction to the surface that has been caused by garbage and human interference has seriously impacted the health of the tree.

Nishat Bagh at Dal Lake around 1970, with the two clusters of Chinar trees on the small bunds at the lakeside that still frame the composition of the terraced garden (Photo: Susan Jellicoe, c.1970).



Damage:

According to the survey of Wadoo, there were 42,000 trees throughout the valley, but in a period of 30 years, this is reduced to 17,124. This is loss of 746 trees every year. There is no way to ascertain the real figures as they can be more than that but the official figures suggest that the trees are on the decline. The chinar tree predates the Mughal occupation of Kashmir and has been introduced during the glorious rule of the Shah Mirs when Kashmir traded with Central Asia and was a center of commercial and cultural activities. Even during the Mughal rule, the occupational regime planted 1200 Chinar trees near Hazratbal which is now part of Naseem bagh.

Growth:

The majestic plants can grow up to 30 meters in height and takes around 150 years to reach its full growth. Due to the favorable climatic conditions in the country, the tree growth in the valley is larger than in other parts of the world. It usually takes 30-40 years to reach a mature size.

Despite all the concerns that have been raised, no serious attempts are being made by the authorities to preserve the cultural heritage of Kashmir. They are not to be planted near the urban setting due to the growth of the root. The heavy movement suffocates the tree roots that reflects in its overall growth.

Shalimar Bagh Canal around 1864, looking towards the entrance terrace of Shalimar Bagh. With avenues of Chinar trees, soft green edges (Photo: Samuel Bourne, c.1864.

Threats:

The decline in the chinar trees has been alarming but nobody seems to pay any attention. However, there were preventive measures taken but all went in vain. Even though the Acts like The Jammu and Kashmir Reservation of Specified Trees Act (1969) are in place, but when it comes to ground, there is a lot more to do. Earlier the department of floriculture gave more than 4000 saplings to the common public to plant, but none of the saplings ever made it to the soil.

The Mughal gardens are yet to achieve the UNESCO World Heritage listing, but it’s already losing its heritage and time is not far when the decline speeds up and we can’t do anything about it. No new trees are being planted and whatever decisions are being made, they are only on papers.

The civil society and local community leaders need to take a bold step and educate the masses about the alarming decline in the chinar trees and what steps can be taken to preserve them. The main causes of corruption and damage are pests, illegal felling of trees. The stress on tress should be minimized and roads can be carved around instead of removing the tree. The concerning society needs to make sure that the roots are not damaged. This mainly happens due to the flow of heavy traffic that suffocates the roots.

The trees need a massive amount of water so it is to make sure that the access to water is not constrained. Over the years many trees have died or dried due to the loss of irrigation channels and limited access to water. Strict measures are to be taken that ensure the preservation of the heritage tree. High penalties on felling of the trees, education programs where the young kids are educated about the issue. All the things can be achieved if there is a change in the attitude and we understand the grave issue that we are facing.

With the listing to be made in the Heritage list of Unesco, the steps need to be taken and with every losing Chinar, we will neither make it to the list nor will be able to pass down this heritage to our kids. There is a lot that falls on the shoulders of Kashmiris to protect their country’s cultural heritage and one of the main things is to acknowledge the fact that the damage is serious. In 2024, Chattergam will mark the 650 years of the Majestic tree of Kashmir, but we can’t wait till then to start. It must begin now; for the trees that have been lost, it is something that can’t be recovered and no modernisation can suffice. Start with planting sapling where the tree dries out, stop contaminating the water bodies, promote the cultural heriateg in schools and colleges. The roads acn be carved , traffic jams are tiring but losing a Chinar tree is devastation.

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