Chinar: Eternal Sentinel of a Unique Culture

Sitting in my room, as I look out beyond the door that opens on to a balcony, I see a row of green plants neatly planted in their brown earthen pots. All the plants are several feet tall now, their stems clambering over the railing, their leaves getting entangled with branches of other plants – and their roots desperately trying to find space to spread. Observing these plants, I am reminded of a time years ago when, on a trip to Kashmir, we brought back a delicate Chinar sapling. We managed to transport it safely to our house in Gurgaon, and tended it lovingly. However, despite the daily care and attention, it shrivelled up and dried in the heat, causing us much disappointment.

That incident represents a fond but foolish effort to have a little bit of Kashmir on our balcony! Which takes me to one of my favourite subjects – trees. I love trees of all types – and the Chinar is my favourite. I have always been fascinated by this tree. On our visits to Kashmir long ago, I would instinctively stand and stare at the Chinar trees growing on the sides of roads, along the ‘bund’, on the grounds of public buildings and in gardens and parks.

At the very outset, one cannot but notice the imposing grandeur of the Chinar. Its huge trunk, thick branches, impressive height and spreading canopy are rivalled by few other species. The Chinar towers over other trees like a king, its august presence evoking awe and respect. Many a delightful picnic have I enjoyed with my extended family, in the benevolent shade of giant Chinar trees in the Mughal Gardens of Srinagar. Wandering around the garden looking for the perfect spot, settling down on a ‘duree’ for a chitchat, enjoying a mouth-watering lunch of ‘matchh’ and ‘rogani roti’ washed down with cups of ‘kahwa’, then lying down in the cool shade to take a nap – how priceless are these pleasures! It gives me goosebumps to think that those trees of decades ago are still standing there, like dear old friends waiting for my return.

The Chinar is considered sacred by large groups of people in Kashmir. It was said to be particularly revered by preachers who came to India from Persia in medieval times. Later, it became the favourite tree of the Mughals, who planted hundreds of Chinar trees all over Kashmir. According to conservationists, about 25000 Chinar trees have been lost in the last quarter century. Alarmingly, their numbers are steadily declining, as this beautiful symbol of Kashmir fights a daily battle with floods, climate change and infrastructure development. Occasionally, it is reported in the media that so many Chinar trees died, or collapsed due to some natural disaster or these were chopped down to make space for some construction project. Every time I hear of a Chinar tree dying or being lost to development, I feel as if a piece of my heart has gone with it.

I consider the Chinar a perfect combination of grace, beauty, utility and longevity. A full-grown tree thriving in healthy conditions can live for more than hundred years. While its broad trunk conveys an impression of strength and sturdiness, its serrate leaves are a specimen of delicate beauty. The lovely shape of the Chinar leaf has found its way into every craft of Kashmir, from wood carving to papier mache, and embroidered shawls to ‘namdaahs’. I remember how, as a child I would collect Chinar leaves and preserve them between the pages of my books. Chinar leaves of every size, from the smallest pale-green to the largest deep-green, found their way into my fond collection. It gives me immense pride to think that in India, this beautiful tree thrives only in Kashmir and thus gives our state a unique identity.

There is something about the thick foliage, deep shade and rustling leaves of a Chinar tree that imbues the atmosphere with a distinct spirituality. Due to this quality perhaps, Chinar trees are found around both Muslim shrines and Hindu temples in Kashmir. It is generally believed that the oldest Chinar tree of Asia stands in Chattergam in Budgam district of Kashmir. At almost 15 metres tall, this tree is considered the largest Chinar tree in the world. Local legend says that the tree was planted in 1374 by Sufi saint Syed Abul Qasim Shah Hamdani.

While the Chinar dressed all in green is a classic beauty, the same tree in autumn is a huge tourist attraction. Groves of Chinars, in their yellow, orange, rust and crimson outfits, give the impression of a forest on fire. In winter, the tree shorn of its leaves and standing clean in its bare branches, may be devoid of its finery but not its majesty. Kings are known by their stature, not by their clothes! The Chinar is a rare gem found only in the Paradise that is Kashmir.

I have never lived in Kashmir or visited it in autumn or winter. The varying beauty of Chinar trees in different seasons has been described to me by my parents, both of whom lived in Kashmir before I was born. At the top of my wish list is to spend one whole year in Kashmir, so that I can observe the changing light and shade of the seasons and admire my homeland in each of its kaleidoscopic colours.

The Chinar makes a significant contribution to the great natural beauty of Kashmir. This grand old tree has bravely withstood the ravages of time and continues to enthrall and inspire poets, writers, painters and philosophers. This wonderful feature of Kashmir must be nurtured at any cost if we wish to preserve our unique culture.

(The author is a free-lance writer, editor and translator based in New Gurgaon.)