For centuries, Chinar trees have been silently witnessing the history of Kashmir. According to popular belief, the magnificent Chinar was introduced to Kashmir from Persia and later Mughals planted Chinar trees extensively across the valley.
"It was during Mughal era that it got its name. A person saw it's leaves turned into crimson red and he thought it was fire, which made him shout "Chin-nar ast" meaning what a fire in Persian. From that day it got its name Chinar, "says Vidhyarthi Omprakash, retired IFS officer.
The oldest Chinar in Kashmir is said to be 600 years old and is located in the Budgam district of Kashmir, it has a total height of 14.78 metres.
While quoting a book of M S Wadoo, an eminent local forest officer, Saleem Beg, convener INTACH, says, "He attributes the significance and sacredness of Chinar to the Buddhist past of Kashmir. '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).
CHINARS DURING MUGHAL ERA
"Emperor Akbar, was so captivated by Chinars that he laid a garden of Chinars, Bagh-i-Naseem at the banks of Dal lake. It was Jehangir who put forth the concept of Char Chinar (planting of 4 Chinars on 4 corners of a garden/park in Dal Lake). During the reign of Shah-e-Jehan, 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," Beg writes.
According to Botanist, Dr Anzar Ahmad Khuroo, who is working as an Assistant Professor at University of Kashmir, Chinar represents a tree of Kashmir's natural heritage, both from historical and contemporary perspective.
"In the current scenario of COVID19 crisis, the world is grappling with twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity crisis as well.
He further said that every year on 5th June, World Environment Day is celebrated. This year, "United Nations started 2021-30 as Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and this initiative was kickstarted because it's believed that across the globe nature is bleeding”.
Tree plantation is considered to be the main activity under this global initiative, and through trees, this initiative can be made successful by 2030, he adds.
Dr Anzar maintains that the value of trees is beyond market or material value.
"That's why I want to emphasize that even if Chinar may not be seemingly economically important as compared to other timber trees, in a more ecological perspective the values of Chinar are countless.”
While talking about historical perspective, he says there is evidence that Chinar has been growing in Kashmir since quite earlier times. "It is not growing in the wild in Kashmir but wherever we have it, it has been cultivated according to my best experience."
Regarding the history of Chinar, Dr Anzar says it's still debatable from where it has been brought here. 'It may be Western Asia, or the Middle East or some other region. Scientifically, it is known as Plantanus orientalis, which means Oriental that implies it has Orientalist roots which in other words implies Old World.
Recently, one more species from New World, Plantanus occidentalis has also been introduced in Kashmir but that's not grown at many places.
Dr Anzar maintains throughout the world there are only two types of Plantanus which includes P. orientalis and P. occidentalis.
DECLINE IN POPULATION
According to official data, Chinars once numbering more than 40000 are now on decline.
"Though there is no credible data available right now, it's estimated range is said to be from 17000 to 34000," says an official in the floriculture department.
Saleem beg also has written in one of his pieces that 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. Then it was 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 out 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."
AGE OF CHINARS
Dr Anzar believes, there is still no scientific study about how old our Chinars are, "Yes, we know oldest chinar is located in Budgam but how old that is, is still a matter of future research.
"We have a scientific discipline called as dentrochronology through which we can determine the age of a tree through the stem of a tree. Through stems we bore some cores and through those cores we get evidences about the probable age of trees.
Once during a project with a team from Czech Republic, out of his own interest, Dr Anzar tried to study the age of Chinar trees.
"Though that project was a different one, we tried to figure out the age of Chinar trees but we were unsuccessful in the attempt since Chinars are hollow from inside and we couldn't get the cores from the stem."
There is a separate department of floriculture department which oversees the overall development of Chinars, headed by Chinar Development Officer.
According to Tariq al Habib, CDO, they have developed the nurseries pan Kashmir wherein they distribute saplings and cutting of Chinar trees to increase their population.
"We have distributed 65000 Chinar saplings so far in this year and for next year we are readying some 40000 saplings for distribution in different districts of Kashmir."
He further said that so far no such initiative has been carried out in district Doda but now they have distributed 750 saplings over there which are already four to five feet tall.
Though Dr Anzar says that the government keeps on carrying out plantation drives but the land available in the Valley is limited to plant these on a mass scale.
"The question remains where to plant it, because in Kashmir land available is very scarce. If somebody has land would that person prefer to plant a Chinar -- which according to me is a complex issue."
"People plant trees for commercial purposes, for example if somebody plants a poplar tree today, s/he knows that s/he would gain profit from it after 10-20 years but the case isn't the same with Chinar."
Chinar is not an economically viable tree, it gives you nothing, it's an unprofitable venture and a person would think a thousand times before planting it, even after planting one, you need to get permission for cutting it.
"That's why the government has taken a lead in it and has to take a lead in it," he adds.
VANDALISATION OF CHINARS
There have been many instances where Chinars have been massacred in the name of making roads and development.
"Recently Chinars were brutally uprooted in the Poloview area of Srinagar which shouldn't have happened. We have to plan our roads in a way where we would divert the roads for a nearby Chinar but that's not being done here."
Tariq ul Habib said according to laid guidelines no construction work should be taken at a place nearby Chinar.
"There has to be a 40 feet demarcation at a place beholding Chinar where construction work has to be taken up."
But Dr Anzar believes that's nowhere employed in Kashmir.
"We have seen big campaigns carried out to save trees like one in Mumbai last year, an entire big project was put on halt for conserving trees but in Kashmir the scenario at administrative level is different."
In 2017, at least 11 chinar trees were illegally chopped in Wahibugh village of Pulwama. And similar incidents were reported from Panthachowk, Poloview, Nowshehra, Four shore Road etc.
ECOLOGICAL SERVICES OF A CHINAR
A tree doesn't have an aesthetic value only but it provides precious ecosystem services as well - which includes non-marketable benefits we derive from the trees, Dr Anzar maintains.
Throughout the globe there is a phenomenon called the urban heat island effect which means the more you move towards the city core, you have relatively higher temperature as compared to hinterlands. In rural settings there are more trees while in cities there are fewer trees and more concrete."
That's where trees play a crucial ecological role, trees lessen this phenomenon, they create a micro environment and soothes the effects of heat.”
Dr Anzar says in Kashmir there is no better tree to lessen urban heat island effect than Chinar.
Besides that, there is one more aspect to it, he adds.
"Birds make nests on Chinars and act as scavengers, the more scavenging birds can do, the less the burden on municipal corporations."
Chinar is considered to be the best habitat for the birds, even some preliminary studies conducted by the Botany Department at University of Kashmir, suggest the same.
Chinar is extremely important for carbon sequestration which is a process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide.
"Through this method there is a reduction of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with the goal of reducing global climate change," Dr Anzar says.
He says to combat the climate change crisis these trees are the best nature-based solutions. "The higher the number of Chinars, the more carbon dioxide would be sequestered."
"Different trees have different abilities to sequester and in my observation Chinars possibly have the best abilities in doing so in comparison to other trees. So this can be a potential tree in mitigating the effects of global warming."
Government is right now mulling to geo-tag all the Chinars of the valley.
"We have a project going on which will probably take off within a week where all the Chinar trees will have GPS tagging," says Latief Ahmad Bhat, DFO SFRI.
He said that so far no exact data or census available regarding the number of Chinars, there is no inventory. "With this initiative we will have an exact figure of the number of Chinars we have right now."
The purpose of this is to conserve and monitor the trees in Kashmir.
He also mentioned that besides this there is mass scale propagation and raising of Chinars taking place and supply is being done to all sister concern departments of forest department.