The Silent Royal

I grew up amongst a handful of plane trees that looked like giants to a small kid. We played daily in front of our home on the grass square, that had nothing else but six of these trees. We used the trees as goalposts when kicking a ball, and when resting in the shade. These trees were hybrid plane trees, the Platanus x acerifolia, or London plane, and we had no clue nor interest in the scientific aspects of these trees or how they ever got there. They just quietly provided us with a lot of joy, shade and fun, and that was all we asked for.

When in Kashmir, I visit their grandparents, the Oriental plane (Platanus orientalis, eastern plane). The eastern plane and the western plane (Platanus occidentalis) had a romantic momentum and their offshoot is the Platanus x acerifolia. The hybrid plane migrated across the globe and keeps bringing joy to daily life wherever they rooted down. 

One of the grandparents is this majestic veteran plane tree that is several centuries old and proudly stands near the ruins of a royal garden that was built 400 years ago in Kashmir. It is a sacred tree that should receive respect, but has been outcast and neglected by a materialistic society. A small structure near the tree indicates that at some point in time the place held a spiritual or sacred meaning to some people. These days people generally do not really see this elder tree when walking near it, or when preoccupied with gathering bhang (Cannabis indica) that grows vigorously under its crown. 

Ancient cultures revered sacred trees and groves before even religion was conjured, and in Asia many trees are still treated as sacred. Take the pine trees or broadleaf trees of the Patpatayan that help guard over the villages of the Philippine Cordilleras; or the cherry trees in Japan, often over thousand years old; and the Bodhi tree that is revered at many Buddhist sites. In the meantime, the plane tree in Kashmir, locally also called chinar or booune (buen, booyn), even the Royal tree, has turned into a minority voice that is now being ignored. 

This ancestor stands proudly as living heritage in the valley, and carries its story through each season.

It listens but feels no longer listened to. It is silent but speaks books about where we come from and what we have become.

Text by Jan Haenraets. Photograph by Imran Ali Buth.

 Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada, and a Professor in the Preservation Studies Program, at Boston University


For more background on the endangered heritage of the plane trees in Kashmir, you may be interested in reading the articles on this site under ‘Save the Chinar‘ and ‘Watching the Royals Die‘.

Not only the chinar tree, but many features of historical gardens and landscapes continue to disappear at a rapid pace in Kashmir. At gardens that are open to the public, those involved in conservation of such sites are in general preoccupied with public access, the commercialization of historical sites, and repairs of built structures. These new uses and constructions often in disastrous ways damage the horticultural heritage assets. Such activities caused for instance many veteran plane trees to be lost in significant historical Mughal gardens in the valley.

Heritage horticulture and the intangible traditional skills and knowledge of gardening are in general still an unknown field in Kashmir, and throughout India. Such sites, including these veteran plane trees, will sadly continue to be damaged and lost, as long as this knowledge will remain absent. Kashmir is starting to look closer into traditional crafts, and hopefully soon the intangible craftsmanship of gardening will also be seen as requiring urgent attention and recognition.

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