Chinar, Bouin to us in Kashmiri, is a large deciduous tree of the Platanaceae family and grows to 30 metres or more with a girth exceeding 150 metres and is known for its longevity of close to 700 years.
Historically it has been associated with Greece as its place of origin with its mention as early as 1400 BC. The celebrated “Tree of Hippocrates” is an oriental Chinar (Platane) tree in Kos, Greece under which Hippocrates II one of the greatest teachers in the history of medicine used to teach.
At present a 500 years old tree is still preserved there. It is believed to be a cutting of the original one which should have been there 2400 years ago and is surrounded by a fence. This tree has survived lightnings, fires and also the devastating floods of 1964 telling us about the ruggedness of this tree.
These trees as they age exhibit hollowed out trunks with cavities large enough to provide amusement to children and teenagers and a space to take shelter in inclement weather.
The huge tree with its characteristic leaves is beautiful. The leaves are fan shaped like maple leaves. During summer they are green and turn into yellow, amber and finally take a reddish hue. It is this crimson red colour which gave it the name Chinar in the Mughal era when a person who saw this gorgeous colour and yelled “Chi-nar ast” in Persian meaning “what a fire”.
The tree which gives shade to people sitting under it in hot summer months also is an Oxygen producing machine producing 120 litres of the lifesaving oxygen per year.
Journey of Chinar from Greece to Kashmir
From Greece Chinar spread to Europe, Central Asia and further eastwards across the Hindukush ranges into Afghanistan, Persia and adjoining Kashmir. In Persia the plane tree (Chinar) was a very common tree especially in the city of Isfahan. Tehran the capital city is also called the city of Chinars and is supposed to be the secret of the pure clean air of that part of the world.
When did Chinar come to Kashmir is a moot question which is debated by many historians. Its name Bouin which is derived from the name of Goddess Bhawani makes many Pundits associate it with Hinduism and thus a native tree of Kashmir before Islam came in the times of Shah Mir in 1339.
Some of them corroborate it with Burzhama, the Kashmir’s neolithic sites (3000-2000 BC) which revealed charcoal deposits believed to have been from Chinar wood.
However, Intriguingly there is no mention of this tree in Rajatarangni the historical chronicle on Kashmir before the year 1148 written by the great scholar Pandit Kalhana who described the Kashmir of those days meticulously and did not miss even the walnut trees described in great detail in the periods of King Nara and King Lalitaditya.
Whether the Vata tree in this chronicle symbolizes the Bouin is any body’s guess but looks too generalized for a magnificently huge tree which has several peculiarities to which make it a distinct entity.
It is generally believed that it was brought from Iran to Kashmir and planted by Syed Qasim Shah Hamdani who accompanied Mir Syed Ali Hamdani from Hamadan, Iran to Kashmir. As a proof the oldest Chinar in Kashmir exists near the mosque of Chattergam Chadoora in District Badgam of Kashmir and is more than 600 years of age.
Mughal emperors took a fancy for the tree and Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb during their regimens got them planted all over in the empty spaces and gardens.
The great emperor Akbar is said to have planted around 1200 trees after he took over Kashmir in 1586. The beautiful four Chinar island in the Dal Lake Char Chinari and the Ropa Lank was constructed in the Mughal regimen by Murad Baksh, Aurangzeb’s brother.
The second Chinar Island overlooking the holy shrine of Hazratbal, Sona Lank (Golden Isle) was raised by Sultan Zain-ul-Abdin in 1421 as a shelter of the boatmen to protect them on the stormy windy days of the Dal Lake. Bouin thus is a part of the heritage of Jammu and Kashmir and also is its state tree.
Interestingly its leaf is also the official symbol of the Pakistan administered occupied Kashmir. The tree thus has a long history in Kashmir valley and who brought it here does not merit an acrimonious debate.
The tree is given the sanctity of being a part of both the compounds whether parts of historic Hindu temples or revered Sufi shrines in Kashmir.
The onset of autumn or the Harud (in Kashmiri) is also associated with Chinar leaves turning to golden and then reddish-orange before turning brown and finally falling on the ground.
The parks and gardens and especially the countryside with Chinar trees shedding their leaves during this period creates a magical golden aura.
Walking down the lawns and even streets give the sound of rustling over these fallen dry colourful leaves. It produces a magical aura that lasts in the mind for very long. Bouin tree thus is an important part of this mystic season before the dreary winter sets in.
Chinar trees need protection
The tree thus is a part of the heritage of Kashmir. Sadly, however these are being felled rapidly. The population of these trees which was around 42,000 in the 1970s has come down drastically to less than 15,000. The tree was a property of the government in the Dogra regimen till 1948 and felling it was a crime. A ban was again enacted in 2009 to curb cutting and it is a state property which requires to be registered. This law needs to be strictly observed.
The tree is Kashmir’s pride and while developing the infrastructure it should be ensured that the natural heritage remains unaffected. While the existing trees need to be nurtured and conserved, new ones should be planted on a large scale to conserve this legacy.
Prof Upendra Kaul, Chairman Cardiology and Dean Academics and Research Batra Hospital and Medical Research Center, is founder Director Gauri Kaul Foundation