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Kashmir’s landscape is fast changing with the onset of autumn. It has made the sun mild, brought a chilly mist into the air and denuded most trees, including the mighty Chinar (Maple). Walking down the streets, one cannot miss the rustling sound of leaves from the famed Chinar trees breaking the silence.
The majestic Chinar trees (whose botanical name is Platanus orientalis or oriental plane) grow as tall as 25 meters, with girth exceeding 50 feet in some cases. These trees figure notably in Kashmir’s literature and politics; religion and romance.
It’s not the Chinar during the summer, when it is all green, that draws the crowds, but the Chinar during autumn. For that is when its leaves acquire varied colourful hues — of blood-red, mauve, amber and yellow — in a short period of time, somewhere around October end, and remain that way till the end of November. Walk around Srinagar during this season and you can find Chinar leaves, in different bright colours, twisted and curled by the vagaries of the summer.
The shedding of Chinar leaves, locally known as Buen , marks the onset of autumn and sets off a process of change in the Valley every year, with people wearing woollens and changing their food habits to suit the weather.
Islamic preachers who travelled to Kashmir four centuries ago from Central Asia and Persia also revered the tree. It is said that the oldest Chinar tree in Kashmir, around 700 years old, was planted by the Sufi Saint Syed Qasim Shah in Chattergam, in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. The tree grew to be 14.78 metres high.
Women wailing and praying in the shrines, hoping to bring an end to their sorrows, can be seen seated under the Chinar trees that dot most of the Valley’s prominent shrines and mosques. Two major shrines in Kashmir — Sultan-ul-Arifeen and Hazratbal — have neatly-placed majestic Chinar trees for the devotees.
Hindu worshippers equally revere the Chinar tree. The trees can be found in the goddess Bhavani temples in Kashmir, including the Khir Bhawani temple in Ganderbal. Many Hindus believe that the Kashmiri name ‘Buen’ comes from goddess Bhavani.
Officially, there were 42,000 Chinar trees in Kashmir during the 1970s. However, the number had fallen to around 5,000 by the turn of the century. But the horticulture department is making up for the lost numbers again by planting around 14,000 more trees.
Ridden with political uncertainties, raging militancy and omnipresent security personnel across the Valley, Kashmiri residents seek solace under the Chinar, before winter arrives and its colours fade.
Chinar-gazers assemble under the tree in villages, towns and the capital city of Srinagar to gaze in awe at the changing hues and swirling leaves, which are burnt to keep the traditional Kangri (earthen fire-pot) alive when snowfall takes over the landscape.
The Chinar has served as an inspiration for politicians too. Former Chief Minister Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, who died in September 1982, chose to title his autobiography ‘Aatish-i-Chinar’, which means ‘Flame of Chinar’. Abdullah’s close friend and former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, according to Congress leader Muzaffar Parray, was a regular to Kashmir in autumn. “Gandhi visited Kashmir the same month she was assassinated in 1984. She was fascinated by the autumn Chinar trees,” said Mr. Parray.
Known as Chanakya and a close aide of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Makhan Lal Fotedar, a Kashmiri, chose to name his bare-all memoir The Chinar Leaves .
The centrality of the Chinar in people's lives can be gauged from the fact that the first Kashmiri Muslim fashion designer Zubair Kirmani, who made it big in the fashion industry in India, named his brand Boune Paen (leaves of Chinar). “The tree represents our heritage and culture. It is intrinsic to who Kashmiris are,” says Mr. Kirmani.
To capture the political turmoil and insurgency years of Kashmir, Bollywood directors Vishal Bhardwaj in Haider , Shoojit Sircar in Yahaan and Aamir Bashir in Harud chose the autumn and Chinars to depict the troubled times the Valley has gone through.
With its origins believed to be in Greece, the Chinar tree is a silent witness to Kashmir’s romance, its religious reverence, and its political and armed struggles for ages now.
In 1990s, when militancy raged across the State, the militants used the Chinar as bunkers and arms hideouts. Given the girth of the trunk, the hollow spaces in between could accommodate both men and armed machinery.
As militancy waned over a period of time, rights activist Khurram Pervez, coordinator of Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, says that the Chinar now provides shade to a vast number of unmarked graves and mass graves in the State.
A graveyard in Bimyar in Baramulla district, 50 km away from Srinagar, is dotted by Chinars. “The Bimyar graveyard has many dreams and a lot of pain buried. This is a site of mass graves and unmarked graves. More than 230 unidentified people are buried here, which includes a 6-month-old baby girl,” says Mr. Pervez.
With a strict ban on their being cut, the Chinar not only dots graveyards and Mughal gardens but colleges and universities too. Highways and homes host mighty Chinars, which in turn host the migratory birds that come all the way from Siberia and Russia.
The Mughal gardens of Naseem Bagh in Srinagar house more than 100 Chinar trees, a perfect host to lovers who come here for a romantic getaway.
Many couples can be spotted here shooting videos to preserve the scenic beauty of the site for posterity. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are flooded with selfies from the young and the old alike with the majestic Chinar trees in the backdrop.
“These colours play on the minds of people and motivate them to undertake pleasurable activities,” says Dr. Arshad Hussain, a leading psychiatrist working at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital.
The Chinar leaves thus help fight the seasonal depression induced by the autumn sun, particularly among Kashmiris, whose lives have been marred by the violence and insurgency of the past 25 years.
In fact, Kashmir’s separatist struggle continues to draw its motivation from poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal's famous couplet, which was influenced by the Chinar:
‘ Jis khaak ke zameer me hai aatish-e-chinar ,
Mumkin nahi ki sard ho woh khaak-e-arjumand
(The dust that carries in its conscience the fire of the Chinar, It is impossible for that celestial dust to cool down).