Save the Chinar: The Endangered Heritage of the Oriental Plane Trees of Kashmir (Full Article)

The Chinar, the Oriental (Eastern) Plane tree, Platanus orientalis, or Buen/Booyn in Kashmiri language, is living heritage of Kashmir. It is seen as a symbol for the region, and a part of its soul. It is a majestic tree that can be found throughout the landscape of the valley, hillsides and cities.  The oldest found Chinar is thought to have been planted in the year 1374.

Their number has since the 1970s been in a steady decline with over 25,000 trees lost of around 42,000 Chinars that existed in Kashmir in the 70s. The remaining heritage Chinars are rapidly disappearing and at high risk.

The dwindling numbers are one of the sad and symptomatic stories of the 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 harmonic coexistence with nature and place.
Fig. 1: Chinar trees at Verinag, the spring of the river Jhelum (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2011).

The Royal Tree

Monarchs like the Mughals, Pathans and Maharajas treated the Chinar as an integral part of Kashmiri’s soul and existence. The Mughals even declared the Buen as the Royal tree. It could not be felled anywhere and it was planted along important roads and routes, and in the many gardens and parks that were being created during the Mughal era.

The Chinar is thought to have been introduced to Kashmir from Persia, well before by the time the Mughals arrived in the region. It is known that the Mughal Emperor Akbar planted Chinars in the valley, after annexing Kashmir in 1586, including an estimated 1,200 trees near the present site of the Hazratbal shrine. Part of Naseem Bagh, which lays near the Hazratbal shrine, survives to this date with hundreds of Chinar trees. It now is a part of the University of Kashmir grounds with university buildings placed under the trees.

Fig. 2: The historic Chinar Trees at Naseem Bagh in Autumn (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2011).

Anatomy & Uses

The Chinar is part of the Plane tree family (Platanaceae), which includes the Platanus orientalis, the Eastern Plane (which is the Chinar or Buen), and the Platanus occidentalis, the Western Plane. The London Plane or Hybrid Plane, is the Platanus x acerifilia, and is a cross between the P. orientalis and P. occidentalis.

The name Chinar derives from a Persian word, which can be translated as meaning ‘What a fire!’. This reflects the impressive orange-red autumn colour of the Chinar. The Chinar has a maple-like foliage and a patterned bark. Their leaves will fall from about mid to end November, with new leaves appearing in early April to late April.

A dead Chinar tree at Shalimar Bagh being cut up. The tree probably dates back to the origins of the garden in the 17th C. and changes to water access, root damage and diseases must have contributed to its peril (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
Fig. 3: The cutting up of a Chinar tree at Shalimar Bagh after it dried up and blew over. The tree probably dates back to the origins of the garden in the 17th C. and changes to water access, root damage and diseases must have contributed to its peril. Better conservation care should be in place to avoid such losses (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).

Plane trees are all large deciduous trees with vigorous growth. It takes around 30 to 50 years for the trees to reach their mature height and around 150 years for them to grow to their full size. The Chinar can grow to 30 meters height and more. Their growth in the Valley of Kashmir is bigger then outside the valley, due to the favourable climatic conditions. They grow well in moist fertile soils, preferably humus-rich. Chinars are deep-rooting trees, and the roots extend well beyond the crown area, which is often forgotten and root damage and lack of water access are of the major threats to the trees. Due to their vigorous root systems they are best not planted near buildings as roots can damage structures and drains over time. Nevertheless, all Plane tree species have become valued trees in urban setting throughout the world, which is much due to their stately appearance and provision of shade.

Chinars have hard wood, which makes their wood excellent for carvings, such as for use in carved doors, windows and furniture, for interior details and small ornamental objects. The trees are also known to have some medicinal properties and uses.

The Oldest

It is believed that the oldest Chinar tree of Asia stands in Chattergam, Chadoora in the Budgam district of Kashmir. This tree is considered as the largest Chinar tree in the world. Based on local legend it is said that the tree was planted in 1374 (641 years old in 2015) by saint Syed-Abul Qasim Shah Hamdani. The tree’s significance was documented by Mohammad Sultan Wadoo, the former chief conservator of forests, and a well-known environmentalist. Wadoo published in 2007 his book ‘The Trees Of Our Heritage’ and did much work towards documenting the decline of the Chinars in Kashmir.

The veteran tree at Chattergam is now part of a mosque precinct and maintenance of the approach road with fencing around the tree have been promised by the government, as part of a special heritage park development. It is believed that the second biggest Chinar in the valley is one that grows in the park at the remaining grounds of the Mughal garden of Darah Shikoh Bagh in Bijbehara, in the Islamabad district.

Another Chinar, which is believed to be one of the largest trees of Kashmir, stands just outside the walled garden of Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar. Opposite the Shalimar Bagh hammam it struggles for its survival in the midst of an asphalted road and now functions as an out-of-proportion roundabout. It is well possible that this Chinar is over 500 years old too. The road passes between the Chinar and the Hammam with building material and garbage littering the area. Protection and appearance of both featured would be much improved if a small green landscaped buffer zone could be made around the tree and Hammam. This would be possible if the road would no longer run between both features, and with a solution being put in place for the road to go at a distance around the tree, so that it’s roots would properly be protected. That way the heritage value of the tree and it’s survival would be better safeguarded.

Fig. 4: The veteran tree near the Hammam at Shalimar Bagh. The tree is probably over 500 years old and one of the oldest in Kashmir, but struggles to survive in the middle of an asphalted and polluted roadside setting (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2011).

Millions of Tree-Years Lost

It was estimated that there were about 42,000 Chinar trees in the 1970s. A survey by Wadoo estimated that the number of surviving Chinars in 2004 was about 17, 124. This means that an approximate number of 25,000 of trees were lost 0ver a period of just over 30 years. Wadoo spoke of a loss of around 746 Chinar trees every year, and that number could well have gone up in the past years. This would mean that if this rate continues, that theoretically most of the Chinars could be lost in about 20 years. Especially given that since 2004 many more of them have been lost, and on a daily basis more Chinars can be seen as drying out and dying. Particular along roads and as a result of suffocation, loss of access to plenty water, road widening and construction works.

To further reflect on the scale of these losses, it is perplexing to think about how many years of tree growth has already been lost. Knowing that it takes around 150 years for a Chinar to grow to its full size, we could use as an example 250 years, as the potential average age of these heritage trees. This number could well be higher. If we multiply 250 years times 25,000 Chinar trees, then it would mean that probably over 6,250,000 years of Chinar growth were already lost up to 2004.

How many Chinars would have to be replanted to make up for this loss? How can we ever restore a lost heritage of 10,000s of trees of up to six centuries of age?
Fig. 5: A beautiful Chinar tree along the Sunday Market area in Srinagar (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).

Protection. Protection?

What makes this figure even more hallucinant is that all these losses and tree fellings occurred while ‘The Jammu and Kashmir Reservation of Specified Trees Act (1969)’ has been in place. The Act makes ‘provision for the preservation of certain species of trees and for regulation of felling of export thereof’. The Act imposes a ban on felling and lopping of these heritage Chinars.

The case of the Chinar illustrates how illegal activities can still thrive in the Valley of Kashmir and how a cancer of corruption, indifference and inefficiency is allowed to destruct the cultural and natural assets of Kashmir.

Ecologists, environmentalists and heritage experts have been raising the issues and devastating implications for decades, but ignorance and self-interest continues as a public and governmental apathy prevails.

In 1986 the Jammu and Kashmir government launched a Chinar Development Office under the Department of Floriculture, with a mission to lead on the preservation of the Chinars and check felling of the trees. Apparently lack of staff in the Chinar Development Authority meant that this initiative died out years ago. The Department of Floriculture says that it gives (or gave?) annually 4,000 to 5,000 Chinar saplings to the wider public for planting. The question is where these saplings end up, as even in the main historic Mughal gardens that are managed by the Department of Floriculture, no new plantings of Chinar trees can be observed.

Even worse is that many veteran Chinar trees are being lost rapidly at sites such as Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh. This while these garden sites are going through a project to achieve UNESCO World Heritage Listing, and already were included on the UNESCO Tentative List. For instance, the clusters of veteran Chinars on the two small bunds at the edge of Dal Lake, at the lowest terrace (now roadside) of Nishat Bagh, are all dying or were already felled. This as a result of construction of commercial stalls and building works at the lakefront by the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA). All Chinars on the smallest northern bund have completely been lost since 2011, with commercial stalls having taken over, and not one single Chinar having been replanted. The photos from 2010 and 2011 of the northern bund illustrate that this was not a dead Chinar, and proper heritage conservation treatment and pruning could have protected and safeguarded this tree. The authorities nevertheless opted for a removal and conversion of this most important historic feature into an are for commercial stalls. Not the tree should have been removed, but the commercial stands. In the meantime the last Chinar trees on the southern bund are also steadily loosing their fight.

These issues illustrate how authorities lack a basic knowledge of heritage landscape conservation and management, and new structures and programmes should be established as soon as possible, in partnership with these authorities, to develop landscape conservation and heritage horticulture expertise in Kashmir, and within government bodies such as the Department of Floriculture, Jammu and Kashmir Tourism, and LAWDA.

Fig. 6: Nishat Bagh at Dal Lake around 1970, with the two clusters of Chinar trees on the small bunds at the lakeside that still frame the composition of the terraced garden (Photo: Susan Jellicoe, c.1970).
The southern bund with Chinar trees that are threatened due to construction of commercial buildings on their roots and against the trees. Suffocation is clear from the tops of trees that are drying out. Since 2010 the situation has worsened (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2010).
Fig. 7: The southern bund with Chinar trees that are threatened due to construction of commercial buildings on their roots and against the trees. The impact of suffocation is obvious from the conditions of the tops of trees that are drying out. Since 2010 the situation has worsened (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2010).
The northern bund with a Chinar tree that was suffocating and drying out as a result of construction of commercial stalls on its roots, and due to turning the soft lakeside edge into a stone and concrete wall. These new concrete walls contribute to the Chinars roots being damaged and access to water being disturbed (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2010).
Fig. 8: The northern bund with a Chinar tree that was suffocating and drying out as a result of construction of commercial stalls on its roots, and due to turning the soft lakeside edge into a stone and concrete wall. These new concrete walls contribute to the Chinars roots being damaged and access to water being disturbed (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2010).
The northern bund in 2011 after that the last Chinar tree was removed. The natural and historic character of the Chinar bund has been replaced by intrusive commercial stands, a concrete and stone lakeside edge, and concrete inappropriate shading pavilions (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2011).
Fig. 9: The northern bund in 2011 after that the last Chinar tree was cut down. The photo from 2010 showed that this was not a dead Chinar and proper heritage conservation treatment and pruning could have protected and safeguarded this tree. The natural and historic character of the Chinar bund has been replaced by intrusive commercial stands, a concrete and stone lakeside edge, and concrete inappropriate shading pavilions (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2011).

Similarly, the Chinar avenue along Shalimar Canal, a most significant part of the garden and wider landscape features, are all but lost. Just a few Chinar trees survive in a dying state. The canal itself is also being destroyed through inappropriate engineered construction under LAWDA’s watch, with by 2015 parts of the canal’s edges excavated and being replaced by concrete-stone vertical embankments. The Canal and its bunds with the Chinar trees, form an integral composition and historic landscape feature. It pre-dates the Mughal gardens and is a key part of the proposed UNESCO World Heritage Zone. It’s destruction and alteration will be an irreversible loss of around 1,400 years of history.

Fig. 10: The Shalimar Canal at Shalimar Bagh, and one of the last barely surviving Chinar trees. Road constructions and concrete edging and excavations of the canal’s soft edges are destroying the canal and its authenticity (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2011).
Shalimar Bagh Canal around 1864, looking towards the entrance terrace of Shalimar Bagh. With avenues of Chinar trees, soft green edges (Photo: Samuel Bourne, c.1864).
Fig. 11: Shalimar Bagh Canal around 1864, looking towards the entrance terrace of Shalimar Bagh. With avenues of Chinar trees, soft green edges (Photo: Samuel Bourne, c.1864).
Ongoing widening of the Shalimar canal in 2015, with the soft edges being removed and replaced by concrete-stone engineered walls. With roads along the canal and Chinar plantations along parts of the canal being lost. The authenticity and integrity of this historic feature will be irreversibly damaged if these action swill not halt (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
Fig. 12: Ongoing widening of the Shalimar canal in 2015, with the soft edges being removed and replaced by concrete-stone engineered walls. With roads along the canal and Chinar plantations along parts of the canal being lost. The authenticity and integrity of this historic feature will be irreversibly damaged if these action swill not halt (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).

Ironically, protective measures that had been established prescribed that any official permission for felling of a Chinar should only be granted on one of the conditions being that five new Chinars must be planted for each removed tree. However, no new trees are being planted, while these bunds and Mughal baghs are managed by governmental departments such as the Department of Floriculture and LAWDA.

Such shortcomings are key examples of how the apathy of governmental bodies contributes to the problem. If not even at the most significant historic sites – such as potential UNESCO World Heritage Sites –  the Chinars are well-safeguarded, where else in Kashmir can we expect that this would be the case? Why would the wider public care for the trees if the government sets such example? The authorities must set an example of best practice and abide to their own regulations in order to improve and influence practice throughout Kashmir.

Main Causes of Threat

The ongoing loss of the Chinar, despite the state Act to ban felling, can be attributed to a number of causes and factors, including ingenious ways of bending the rules (read illegal and corrupt) to bypass regulations and legal protection. To attempt to better understand some of the key causes of loss and damage, a basic overview of some of the causes and threats is listed here.

a. Key causes:

It seems that the loss of Chinars can be grouped under a couple of main causes:

  • Stress put on the trees: This in itself is an extensive topic and will more be elaborated below.
  • Plant diseases and pests: Some of these are often for years present in a tree without causing major concerns, but stress on the trees can cause diseases to become aggravated, or may cause new the tree to get infected by other diseases. Visual inspection of some trees or dead trees show reasons to believe that there are some diseases. Material from trees, especially from the trees that were lost in the historic Mughal baghs must be investigated urgently.
Wood of a Chinar tree that was lost at Shalimar Bagh. The tree should be documented so that plant records are kept for future reference and understanding. For instance, wood should be tested on diseases, and the tree's age should be established. The location of the tree should be marked on a map and photographic records should be kept (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
Fig. 13: Wood of a Chinar tree that was lost at Shalimar Bagh. The tree should be documented so that plant records are kept for future reference and understanding. For instance, wood should be tested on diseases, and the tree’s age should be established. The location of the tree should be marked on a map and photographic records should be kept (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
  • Illegal felling of trees: The illegal felling of trees continues despite the Act, often with the purpose to make profit from the wood. Roadside widening and construction also contribute massively to the loss of Chinars. Illegal felling also occurs as a result of housing developments, as can be see at Saif Khan Bagh, near Srinagar, where housing destructs the archaeology, historic chahar bagh layout and planting remnants, such as the Chinar trees that stand on the intersections of the geometrical layout.
  • Lack of replanting of trees: The absence of a proper replanting program adds to dwindling numbers of trees. As mentioned, even at key historic sites, like the Mughal gardens, planting of new Chinar trees is not occurring.
A rare example of a Chinar sampling being planted in a Mughal garden. Here at Naseem Bagh (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
Fig. 14: A rare example of a Chinar sampling being planted in a Mughal garden. Here at Naseem Bagh (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
Housing developments is moving into Saif Khan Bagh and step by step destroys the historic archaeology of the Mughal site af the Aurangzeb era. Clumps of Chinar trees that stand on intersections of the Chahar Bagh layout are also being lost through illegal felling and suffocation (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
Fig. 15: Housing developments is moving into Saif Khan Bagh and step by step destroys the historic archaeology of this Mughal site af the Aurangzeb era. Clumps of Chinar trees that stand on intersections of the Chahar Bagh layout are also being lost through illegal felling and suffocation (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).

b. Loss through stress put on the Chinars:

Stress put onto the Chinar trees must be seen as one of the main causes of on dwindling tree numbers in Chinar. Some examples of types of stress are briefly listed.

  • Tree damage: Such as through damage to its branches, tree trunk, roots and root zone, and debarking. In Shalimar Bagh an example was seen of how a bench placed around a Chinar by the Department of Floriculture, and to achieve this the tree was severely damaged by cutting into it. Many people have on purpose damaged the tree by girdling, root debarking, branch cutting or suffocation to cause it to slowly die. Under the Act (as far as it still is in place) special permits to fell a tree will be given when a tree is dead or drying up. Given the corruption ridden government administrations, many healthy, green Chinars are said to have been cut down as people obtained permits that stated that the trees were dead and dried up.
A Chinar tree at Shalimar Bagh that was damaged to place a bench around it (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
Fig. 16: A Chinar tree damaged at Shalimar Bagh to place a bench around it (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
  • Root damage: Root damage is highlighted separately as it is one of the main issues that we see occurring and the old Chinars seem very sensible to root damage.
    • Compaction of the root zone: Through storage of materials, vehicles and people moving over the root zone. Compaction affects for example the irrigation and air movement through the soil.
    • Root damage: Construction work often causes damage, and even conservation repair works in the historic baghs of Nishat and Shalimar may have caused significant damage to roots of the trees. For instance during repair works of the channels, which were also damaged by roots of the Chinars. Road building and widening cause much damage and many trees end up standing within an asphalt surface.
    • Suffocation through change of the ground levels above the root zone: In many cases of dying Chinars, it is caused by changes to the ground levels around the tree, above the root zone. The root zone extends well beyond the crown of the tree and increasing the soil levels or filling land in means trees suffer major stress through suffocation. Air and water access dramatically changes, meaning that the trees have no chance of survival.
Chinar trees that suffocated near Dastgeer Sahib Shrine, with the ground levels increased on the root zone. In this case , due to rubble was dumped on the root zone (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
Fig. 17: Chinar trees that suffocated near Dastgeer Sahib Shrine, with the ground levels increased on the root zone. In this case, probably due to rubble that was dumped on the root zone (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
China trees dying at Jhelum River Park due to the soil levels having increased on the root zone outside the crown area (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
Fig. 18: Chinar trees dying at Jhelum River Park due to the soil levels having increased on the root zone outside the crown area (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
  • Change of access to water:
    • Natural periods of drought will affect tree growth but in general will not kill them.
    • We observe many Chinars that have died and are drying out as a result of causes such as: Compaction of soil, construction; root damage; heightened soil; or disappearance of the streams, irrigation channels, etc. that provide them with water.
    • These ancient Chinars are massive trees and need undisturbed access to large amounts of water. Reducing the access to water will contribute towards slowly seeing them drying up from the tops.
  • Site Pollution:
    • Contamination of the site and the water resources can effect their health. Leakage of oil and petrol, chemicals or building products such as cement mixtures into the root zones of water sources, can seriously damage the trees.
A veteran Chinar tree at the bund along the Jhelum river in Srinagar, feeling the pressure of urban development (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).
Fig. 19: A veteran Chinar tree at the bund along the Jhelum river in Srinagar, feeling the pressure of urban development (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2015).

Save the Chinar Now!

We often do not realize what we have, when we have something in abundance, until it’s almost lost.

With the high levels of urban growth in Kashmir and the associated development pressure, together with the indifference and apathy that exists, a critical point has been reached to safeguard the Chinar heritage and the natural treasure it represents for the long-term future. Strict measures must be put in place urgently to avoid further decline and save as many possible Chinars. Action must be implemented immediately at various levels. To inspire areas of actions, a couple suggestions are made here:

  1. Implementation of legal protection, halting the corrupt tolerance of illegal felling;
  2. Protection of sites and the root zones, water resources of the trees. For example develop means to set up protected zones around significant trees where the root zone and water sources are protected. Where needed fenced;
  3. Test and investigate the trees for diseases, including the trees that are being felt and died.
  4. Create a database of information of trees and lost trees;
  5. Record every tree that is lost. Establish their age, map their location, keep photographic records, record the date of removal, diseases, size, etc.
  6. Start a heritage propagation scheme for reintroducing and replanting trees in the valley and at the historic garden and park sites;
  7. Install high penalties for damaging and felling Chinars;
  8. Increasing the mandatory numbers of trees that must be planted after felling and loss on one tree. For example, for every tree-year that is lost, replant a new tree. For a 300-year-old tree, 300 young saplings would be planted in appropriate locations.
  9. Start planting young Chinars in-situ near old trees when feasible. These trees will in the long-term replace old trees when they die;
  10. Promote the heritage of the Chinar trees, for example by interpretation on-site, educational presentations at schools, or by creating an online website to campaign to ‘Save the Chinar’. For example with forms where members of the public can add documentation and photos of trees, and list Chinars At Risk;
  11. Create examples of best practise of safeguarding old trees, possibly inspired by how veteran trees in countries such as South Korea or Japan are being revered.
In countries such as Japan and Korea, veteran trees are revered and cared for in exemplary manners. This tree stands in the traditional village of Hahoe in South Korea. Proper pruning, protective zones around the tree, and expert tree surgery allow such trees to reach very old ages and become the soul and pride of communities (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013).
Fig. 20: In countries such as Japan and Korea, veteran trees are revered and cared for in exemplary manners. This tree stands in the traditional village of Hahoe in South Korea. Proper pruning, protective zones around the tree, and expert tree surgery allow such trees to reach very old ages and become the soul and pride of communities (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2013).

End Note

The challenges in changing attitudes towards the treatment and to safeguard the Chinars are huge. Measures, actions and tools must be put in place as soon as possible to turn around the sad fate of these majestic trees. A few future events that are coming up could help inspire new actions towards some target dates. For instance, by 2018 Kashmir aims to succeed in a UNESCO World Heritage Listing for the Mughal gardens of Kashmir. Without any major changes in attitudes towards the Chinars, the nomination sees it’s chances on success diminish with every Chinar that is lost in these cultural landscapes. Hopefully the Kashmiri people will open up their eyes to the scale of the current threats to the Chinar heritage and the historic landscapes of which they are an integral part.

If this can be achieved, then there will be good reasons to celebrate in 2024 at the historic Chattergam tree, as it will reach that year its 650th Anniversary. The year 2024 could be used as a target date to once again be able to say that the Chinar is part of the soul of Kashmir, and is known and treated as The Royal Tree of Kashmir.

Text and Photographs by Jan Haenraets

Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada; and an Adviser to the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, Jammu & Kashmir Chapter

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