In 1374 AD, Kashmir was ruled by Sultan Shahabudin, one of the earliest kings of the Sultanate era. Shah-e-Hamdan (RA) had just arrived in Kashmir, along with his comrades. These Saadats travelled far and wide and chose different corners of the valley for their mission. One of them Syed Qasim Shah (RA) called Chattergam, Budgam his home. He planted a chinar tree at the place which later also became his final resting place.
Long after the saint, the sacred tree, as is called by the locals, continues to grow and some believe, is currently one of the oldest recorded chinars of the State. The tree is a symbol of living history. It has been there when Kashmir was an independent kingdom, experienced golden age of Budshah and Noor u Din Noorani (RA), saw Kashmir lost to Mughals and travelled with generation through the oppressive Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras aristocracy.
At the foot of the chinar it is a majestic feeling and one can touch a living being that has been breathing for 644 years. It is even older than the first recorded mosque, Khanqah-e-Moula of Kashmir, built in 1395. Chattergam chinar is the luckiest chinar in Kashmir as it received sacred status and enjoyed patronage of people. But other chinars have not been so lucky as they are at the receiving end of death and destruction.
Every years dozens of chinars face the brunt of unplanned expansion, illegal and legal constructions, macadamisation and unscientific development. The State tree is facing one of its biggest threats due to present challenges.
Recently six chinars fell down in strong winds in Shalimar Garden. During road widening at TRC, 10 chinars were cit down. At Shilvath Bandipora, chinar were cut down in broad day light. In Ganderbal, a lawyer had to take up the issue to stop vandalisation of chinar garden by construction activity of Central University of Kashmir. Both in South and North Kashmir, the situation is no different. The chinars are being cut down brazenly in the name of development and safety.
"Development and conservation should go hand in hand. There has to be a balance, but what we are seeing here that when you give somebody a permission to cut a leaf, he will cut down the branch, permit him to prune branch, he will chop down entire chinar, ask him to fell a dead chinar, he will first cut down other green chinars in vicinity and then maybe cut the original dead chinar," said an official pleading anonymity.
Though Kashmir has its chinar Development Officer (CDO), but he is only for name. He has no separate budget, dedicated men or machinery or even simple legal powers or authority. "If I see anybody cutting down chinar tree I do not have any powers to stop him or even reprimand him," said Shayaq Rasool, CDO Kashmir, who has additional charges of District floriculture officer for Ganderbal and Budgam and also has to look after Mughal Gardens. "If anybody has any issues with chinar trees, he has to approach district administration and they intern call us for technical opinion. We visit the site and suggest the appropriate measures like pruning or cutting down in case of dead chinar. Sometimes they call us to monitor pruning and sometimes they don't. So we don't have control on that too."
The officer doesn't even have a lift cab/crane that could be used to prune the chinar that is sometimes necessary for its well being.
"chinar is a hardy plant and it grows to magnificent age and heights. But at times it needs measures like pruning of a lopsided branch to balance the plant," said Salim Beg, State Convenor of INTACH that came up with Technical Guidelines for conservation of these heritage trees and submitted it to Floriculture department in 2016. "Had those guidelines been followed, Shalimar chinars could have been saved. Lost of chinars in protected spaces which has dedicated staff is definitely a new low. The Mughal Garden had 52 old chinars and 12 fell down during last two years. It means we have lost 20 percent of chinars during this period. At this rate the end is not far.""
The INTACH guidelines had recommended various techniques like mulching, adding of nutrient, giving space for aeration and other such measures. "chinar roots need aeration and earth filling and compaction of soil around it literally chokes it. What we saw in the Bund Park Lal Chowk and Residency road, the chinars are gradually dying due to earth filling, macadamisation, laying of tiles etc."
Mathoora Masoom, director floriculture Kashmir said she doesn't know existence of any such guidelines of INTACH. "After floods and constant rains during these days, Shalimar garden has high water table which loosens chinar roots and then they fell due to force of winds," said Mathoora.
When asked about future, she said, "rains are still happening and more chinars can fell down. It is natural calamity, what can we do."
"But we do plant ten chinars for every fallen chinar. This year we distributed 10000 chinar saplings to Army, NGOs and others," she said.
However experts say that more than 90 percent of those chinar saplings don't survive. "The department during last few years has distributed more than 50000 chinars saplings. But where are they?" said an official. "They don't survive as there is no after-plantation care."
As per the census of 2017-18, Kashmir has 35805 chinars with 8559 planted after 1970s. In 1970s the number of chinars was 42000. Going by the official figures we have lost around 15000 full grown chinars from 1970s onwards.
The biggest handicap in conservation of chinars has been lack of scientific knowledge about this tree. "SKUAST has failed us, researchers have failed us terribly. There is not a single research project or paper on chinars. Imagine it is a state tree and we know nothing about it," said an official.
Even the determination of age of chinars is a guess work here. "For smaller chinars say 100 years old, we get references from older people. For older chinars we calculate its circumference and then calculate growth say at the rate of 3cm per year. Yes it is not exact we have only this much facility," said Shayaq. "Chattergam chinar age was also determined like this. But I must say that there can be older undiscovered chinar which we don't know yet."
An Increment Borer is a simple instrument used to determine age of trees without cutting and it usually costs Rs 2500 online, but even that has never been used here.
As of now the biggest challenge is safety of heritage chinars. Due to road widening, government projects and private constructions, administration is of the view that cutting of chinar has become imperative. "Yes the new projects and even Smart City works pose quite a challenge to save these trees," confirmed Shayaq.
However with modern technology, these challenges can be easily overcome. The largest tree ever to be transplanted was a Gingko biloba tree aged 750 years, weighing 1250 tonnes with 13 m trunk girth in South Korea. The huge tree was transplanted to save it from submergence due to building of dams. Transplanting 100 or 200 year old tree is a common thing around the world.
In a situation where chinar Development Office has no separate budget for chinars, tree transplantation facility looks far fetched dream. Hundreds of heritage chinars can be saved if government works on a project to transplant these trees. When road was expanded at Naseembagh, biggest chinar orchard in the world, several majestic trees were left outside the perimeter on roads. They are simply waiting to die unless transplanted back inside.
chinar is not just a tree but it is inseparable part of Kashmir's culture. It is frequently used in poetry, the motif of its leaves has become symbol of traditional kashmiri art and craft. It is sight which a Kashmiri can never take its eyes off. Imagine Residency Road, Naseembagh, Dalgate, villages and gardens without chinars.
Though the situation looks bleak however there is still a hope. After 2014 floods Char chinari island famed for its four chinars was left only with a single live chinar. Sheikh Altaf, incharge floriculture officer for the island took the matter in his hands. Together with employees they treated the soil brought in new earth via boats. Then in July they transplanted a 12 year old chinar that was brought from floriculture nursery near Tulip garden. "It was a risky operation but we had our calculations done. We got the chinar along with its soil and then wrapped it in jute and transported it on a boat. Even in hot July we were able to successfully transplant the full grown chinar," said Altaf. "It proved that chinars can brave transplantation too. So if we get the facilities, definitely we will be able to save lot of chinars. Char Chinari is back with four chinars, though small but it was an important beginning."
The Chattergam though being in good condition faces challenges. Mosque and another building are dangerously close so is the road. The proposed park was never developed. The only thing that matches the chinar is archaic looking rusty display board, that starts with names of MLA and DC and amount given by them followed by names of director upto JEs, who have worked there, on God knows what project. At the end of the board is written brief history of chinar, perhaps symbolising chinars are the last priority of government.