Chinese, Bouin for us in Kashmir, is a large deciduous tree of the Platanaceae family which grows to 30 meters or more with a girth exceeding 150 meters and is known for its longevity of almost 700 years.
Historically, it has been associated with Greece as the place of origin with its mention as early as 1400 BC. The famous “Hippocrates Tree” is an oriental Chinar (Plane Tree) tree from Kos, Greece, under which Hippocrates II, one of the greatest teachers in the history of medicine, taught.
Currently, a 500-year-old tree is still preserved there. It is believed to be a cut of the original which should have been there 2400 years ago and is surrounded by a fence. This tree survived lightning, fires but also the devastating floods of 1964 revealing to us the robustness of this tree.
These trees, as they age, have hollowed-out trunks with cavities large enough to provide entertainment for children and adolescents and space for shelter in bad weather.
The huge tree with its characteristic leaves is magnificent. The leaves are fan-shaped like maple leaves. During the summer, they are green and turn yellow, amber and finally take on a reddish tint. It is this purple-red color that gave it the name Chinar during the Mughal era when a person who saw this magnificent color shouted “Chi-nar ast” in Persian meaning “what fire”.
The tree that provides shade to the people sitting below during the hot summer months is also an oxygen-producing machine producing 120 liters of life-saving oxygen per year.
Travel of Chinar from Greece to Kashmir
From Greece, Chinar spread to Europe, Central Asia and further east across the Hindukush ranges to Afghanistan, Persia and neighboring Kashmir. In Persia, the plane tree (Chinar) was a very common tree, particularly in the city of Isfahan. Tehran, the capital, is also called the city of the Chinese and is said to be the secret to the clean and pure air of this part of the world.
When Chinar came to Kashmir is a controversial question which is debated by many historians. Her name Bouin which is derived from the name of Goddess Bhawani, many experts associate it with Hinduism and therefore an indigenous tree of Kashmir before the arrival of Islam during the time of Shah Mir in 1339.
Some of them corroborate it with Burzhama, the Neolithic sites in Kashmir (3000-2000 BC) which revealed deposits of charcoal believed to have come from Chinar wood.
However, curiously, there is no mention of this tree in Rajatarangni, the historical chronicle on Kashmir before 1148 written by the great scholar Pandit Kalhana who described Kashmir of that era meticulously and did not even miss the walnut trees described in detail in the periods of King Nara and King Lalitaditya.
Whether the Vata tree in this chronicle symbolizes the Bouin is anyone’s guess, but it seems too generalized for a magnificently enormous tree that has several peculiarities that make it a distinct entity.
It is generally believed to have been brought to Kashmir from Iran and planted by Syed Qasim Shah Hamdani who accompanied Mir Syed Ali Hamdani from Hamadan, Iran to Kashmir. As proof, the oldest Chinar in Kashmir exists near Chattergam Chadoora Mosque in Badgam district of Kashmir and is over 600 years old.
The Mughal emperors took a liking to the tree and Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb, during their regimes, had them planted everywhere in empty spaces and gardens.
The great Emperor Akbar is said to have planted around 1,200 trees after conquering Kashmir in 1586. The magnificent four Chinar Islands located in the Dal Char Chinari Lake and the Ropa Lank were built during the Mughal regime by Murad Baksh, the brother of ‘Aurangzeb.
The second island of Chinar overlooking the holy shrine of Hazratbal, Sona Lank (Golden Island) was erected by Sultan Zain-ul-Abdin in 1421 as a shelter for boatmen to protect them during stormy and windy days of Dal Lake. Bouin is therefore part of the heritage of Jammu and Kashmir and is also its state tree.
Interestingly, its leaf is also the official symbol of occupied Kashmir administered by Pakistan. The tree therefore has a long history in the Kashmir valley and who brought it here does not merit an acrimonious debate.
The tree has the sanctity of being part of both complexes, whether historic Hindu temples or Sufi shrines revered in Kashmir.
The beginning of autumn or Harud (in Kashmir) is also associated with Chinar leaves turning golden then orange-red before turning brown and finally falling to the ground.
The parks and gardens and especially the countryside with the Chinar trees which lose their leaves during this period create a magical golden aura.
Walking on lawns and even streets gives the sound of rustling of these dry and colorful fallen leaves. This produces a magical aura that lasts for a very long time in the mind. The bouin is thus an important element of this mystical season before the dreary winter sets in.
Chinese trees need protection
The tree is therefore part of the heritage of Kashmir. Unfortunately, these are decreasing rapidly. The population of these trees, which was around 42,000 individuals in the 1970s, has been significantly reduced to fewer than 15,000 individuals. The tree was government property during the Dogra regime until 1948 and felling it was a crime. A ban was again enacted in 2009 to curb logging and it is state property that must be registered. This law must be strictly respected.
The tree is the pride of Kashmir and while developing infrastructure, care should be taken to ensure that the natural heritage is not affected. Although existing trees need to be maintained and conserved, new ones should be planted on a large scale to maintain this heritage.
Prof. Upendra Kaul, Chairman of Cardiology and Dean of Studies and Research, Batra Hospital and Medical Research Centre, is the founder and director of the Gauri Kaul Foundation.