Loss of living heritage: Depleting Chinar trees in Kashmir

Greater Kashmir

Loss of living heritage: Depleting Chinar trees in Kashmir

In the backof Greater Kashmir report, July 4 2018, about six Chinars uprooted in Shalimar due to strong winds

M Saleem Beg

Jul 27 2018

Kashmir, throughout its history from ancient times to the present, has survived as a morphology which is mainly attributed to the exemplary resilience of its people as much as to its natural heritage. Chinar, (boonyn, Platanus Orientalis), has been an essential and perhaps the most prominent element of this natural heritage. While in-depth research and understanding about this heritage will surely give us a better and more informed insight into the history of this magnificent tree, M S Wadoo, an eminent local forest officer in his book, ‘The trees of our heritage’(2007) has attempted to provide some leads. He attributes the significance and sacredness of Chinar to the Buddhist past of Kashmir and I quote ‘The Buddhi tree (Booyn), planted in prayer centres, was worshipped and its trunk engraved with the figure of Mahatma Buddha in the same manner as the Buddhist Tree (Ficus Religiosa Linn of Bodhgaya – Bihar). Sir Aurel Stein, a great and perceptive Kashmir lover, mentions about the island at the confluence of Jehlum and Sindh near Shadipora, “On this island stands an old tree of Booen, which to pious Kashmirians represents the far famed – Ficus Religiosa Linn tree of real paryaga. This place is an object of real pilgrimages of particular parvans, throughout the year”. Booyn, during the Hindu rule was also granted the status of a holy tree and worshipped as Goddess Bhavani. The tree was completely protected neither to be cut lopped chopped, girdled, debarked and nor to be used for any purpose.

The Mughal rulers, who imagined Kashmir as a paradisiacal and divinely blessed land, planted Chinar trees on important routes and laid many gardens especially around Dal Lake. Akbar, who conquered Kashmir in 1586 AD was so enamored and captivated by Chinar that he laid a garden of Chinars, Bagh-i-Naseem at the banks of Dal lake. This garden is still extant with all its grandeur and magnificence. While we have it from Mughal histories that during their rule 700 gardens were laid in Kashmir, out of these Nishat, Shalimar, Cheshmashahi, Baghi Dara Shikoh, Acchhabal and verinag are still surviving, more or less, as authentic Mughal landscapes.

It was Jehangir( R 1605-28 AD) who put forth the concept of Char Chinar (planting of 4 Chinars on 4 corners of a garden/park in consultation with his consort Noor-Jehan). During the reign of Shah i Jehan( R 1628-58 AD) the process of raising the tree by the help of epicormic branches growing around the Chinar tree was taken up on a large scale. His son Prince Dara Shikoh laid a garden at Bijbehara known as ‘Bagh-e-Dara Shikoh’ also called Badshahi Bagh. This garden has by far the largest number of Chinars in a Mughal garden. Emperor Aurangzeb (R 1658-1707 AD), while expressing sorrow and regret at the devastating fire incident at Jamia Masjid Srinagar, enquiring about the fate of Chinar trees in the premises, heaved a sigh of relief and remarked that the mosque could be re-built within a year or two but it would have taken a long time to return the shade of Chinars. The tree was protected as Royal tree during Dogra rule as well.

Moving beyond history to the present, Department of Floriculture survey released in 2015 places the number of Chinars at 35805 at the last count. These include trees of all ages and size. The census report also mentions that around 5000 chinars are planted every year. This tallies well with the number given by Wadoo, 17000 mature trees.
While giving background and some historic content, this write up in meant to emphasize on a looming disaster of fast loosing heritage of extant historic Mughal gardens of Kashmir. These gardens hold immense value for being amongst the most significant interpretations of Mughal designed landscapes surviving today. ‘The gardens are of exceptional value because of their underlying concept which is based on a profound philosophy of creating a paradise on earth. Being amongst the few surviving Mughal Gardens to be developed in India, these gardens are an important resource to understanding the physical development of the Mughal gardens over a course of time’. Besides, these gardens are a rich repository of the flora that mediates with the terrain and lay out along side the water channels. These features have been integrated and woven in a manner that bestows these gardens with the feeling of a ‘paradies’ or paradise.

The authenticity and integrity of these gardens has been impacted due to various inappropriate interventions over the last few decades. Today, these gardens, like many other cultural sites, face issues of authenticity and loss of respect for historic layering vis-a vis change, especially in the later interventions. Similarly there are issue relating to rapid urbanisation and changing settlement profile around these gardens, which mar the historical character of these sites.

The historic gardens all over the world are progressively being looked at as part of a larger cultural landscape and are receiving enhanced international attention. This attention is manifest in various international charters for preservation of cultural properties and landscapes. UNESCO has been proactively engaged in the process of preservation of historic gardens and many such sites have been listed and nominated on the World Heritage Site List(WHS). INTACH, J&K Chapter initiated the process of bringing focus on these gardens and in the year 2005-06 prepared a report carrying basic documentation of the built and natural features of the gardens as also their place and significance as historic gardens. Subsequently, on the basis of a proposal of INTACH (J&K Chapter) and the Deptt. Of Floriculture, the Kashmir gardens were included in the tentative list of WHS in 2010.

As has been mentioned above, the authenticity and integrity of these gardens has been impacted due to lack of care, maintenance and understanding of their character. Chinars are an integral part of this authenticity and their state of conservation is the most worrisome aspect of authenticity. Jan Haenraets, former head of Scottish Gardens and an eminent expert on historic landscapes who worked in INTACH J&K for a long time on the garden project has lamented that ‘the dwindling numbers of chinars are one of the sad and symptomatic stories of environmental and cultural heritage threats that exist in Kashmir, and illustrate the present state wide ignorance and apathy towards the values of centuries of traditions and coexistence of nature and place’.

INTACH report of 2006 places the number of Chinars in Shalimar Bagh at about 100, out of which 52 Chinars were designated as old and mature, estimating their age to be from 150-400 years. It is this wealth that is gradually being lost. Greater Kashmir reported in its July 4 2018 reported that six Chinars were uprooted in Shalimar due to strong winds. In 2012 this garden lost four Chinars for the same reason. INTACH, in the year 2016, carried a condition assessment of Shalimar and reported to the State Government that ‘one of the most serious issues faced by Shalimar is gradual drying of Chinar trees which has alarmingly caused some of them to collapse. These trees are suffocating because of high compaction of the soil around almost all of them. This compaction is not allowing air, nutrients and moisture to enter tree roots thereby causing this destruction.’ Nothing much was done on this call, caution and alarm. Additionally plant disease and pest infestation has been left untreated for years. Change of ground levels by filling above the root zone, lack of any meaningful conservation protocol is risking the survival of the trees. The expert opinion based on treatment given to similarly placed trees comprises of mulching, conserving moisture by deep and infrequent watering, supporting organic soil growth, eliminating stress in shallow rooted trees, providing nutrients, improving soil structure and drainage etc. was suggested to the Floriculture.

If only the advice given by INTACH in 2016 was heeded by the concerned, the six chinars that were lost in July 2018 could have been saved. Loss of a single tree is loss of a life span of hundreds of years and in these six, we lost about 1500 years of chinar life. This loss robs the gardens of their essence, historic character and a unique cultural value. This also takes us some distance away from reaching the final nomination on UNESCO WHS. It is a bounden duty of the State Agencies and the civil society at large to address this existential threat to our glorious heritage that has survived the vicissitudes of time and is now imperiled by our apathy, and above all insensitivity.

Writer is Convener INTACH, J&K, former Director General Tourism and Member National Monuments Authority