A serving soldier writing under her pen name recounts her new found love for nature during her tenure in Jammu and Kashmir. A soldier often becomes synonymous with valour, sacrifice and fierce; very seldom one gets to see the other side that is poetic and calm alike. She put down her experience for us to relish, Delicate Yet Fiery Boune Paen 'Chinar Patta'.
My association with Chinar trees goes back to the three years of my stay at Udhampur. Being a jolly youngster then and my love for flowers and foliage well-known, I was quick to be stamped as a nature lover. In the months to follow, the happy-go-lucky traveler in me found herself touring Kashmir, sometimes for leisure, sometimes for work, during which for the first time, I witnessed the magic of the Chinar trees. Till then, I had only heard of these magnificent trees. I found them growing in all their grandeur at Verinag, dotting the lovely Shalimar and Nishat Baghs, lending shade over a military accommodation at Dras, brightening up mundane convoy journeys to and fro Jammu-Banihal, adding to the golden light of an autumn sunset at Sonamarg, appearing suddenly at road bends of Rajouri, giving me quiet company while sitting beside the gushing Chenab at Ramban, at innumerable places of Srinagar and in all their serenity while gliding in a shikara towards the Char Chinars.
I think every town in the Valley has at least one of its own grand old man Chinar, growing stoically tall with many stories spun around it. So, imagine my delight, when on a routine visit to a plant nursery at Udhampur, I chanced upon two healthy saplings hiding coquettishly in a corner. I greedily bought them, having found two trees to call all of my own. A grand ceremony was organized, and my boss did the honours of planting the saplings in the office premises.
At present, having found my way back to the Valley, I decide to brighten my early November COVID quarantine days by writing about the brilliant reds, mauves, ambers and ochre colours of the now autumn Chinar leaves which would soon waltz and twirl their way to the ground. I half wonder, if the magic folks of the Faraway Tree actually live in a Chinar tree, given the fairytale look the tree lends to its surroundings. So, read on and be enchanted.
The Tree and its Leaf
Fondly called the Buenor Booyn tree in Kashmiri dialect and Chinar in Urdu, Platanus Orientalis is the botanical name of Kashmir’s heritage tree which can attain mammoth dimensions (100 ft height and 50 ft girth), with deep-coloured leaves to match, all owing to the region’s apt soil and temperate climatic conditions. In 30-50 years, these trees reach mature height and in 150 years their full size, reason enough to conserve the Valley’s century-old chinars. Chinars have robust deep roots which extend far from the main tree and are hence best planted in open areas to prevent damage to the roots and structural foundations. The timber is called Lacewood, however Jammu and Kashmir protects its Chinars under the Reservation of Specified Trees Act (1969).
The prized possession of the Chinar trees is its beautiful and intricate leaf, the Boune Paen, an exquisite design of nature which resembles the human hand. The leaves provide dense cool shade in summers and later transform the Valley into a canvas of warm autumn hues enveloping the growing cold weather. Such is the regal stature of the leaf that it is famously designed into sought-after delicate sui-dhaaga earrings, carved onto walnut furniture and painstakingly embroidered by Aari, Tilla, Kashida and needle work on very fine material sarees and shawls.
The Royal Tree
The Valley’s Chinars boast of royal roots nurtured by the Mughals. Emperor Akbar is known to have planted Chinars along important routes, to adorn Mughal Gardens and create a cascade of still existing trees at Naseem Bagh, Dal Lake. The legacy was continued by Emperor Jehangir and Queen Nur Jahan who built Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar and later also by the British.
A Persian origin to the Valley’s Chinars may be established since the tree is also found in Persia and is known there as the Chenar (smoldering coal). The world’s oldest Chinar tree (646 years) existing at Chattergam village, Budgam district is again believed to be planted in 1374 AD by the Sufi Saint Syed Abul Qaim Hamadani who travelled from Iran to Kashmir.
(Left) 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)
(Right) 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).
An Identity of the Valley
The state tree of Jammu and Kashmir is considered sacred by all. The tree has permanently percolated into the daily lives and livelihood choices of the locals. Kashmiri artisans since time immemorial have chiseled, carved, sewn, painted and hand-crafted the beautiful Chinar Leaf Motif or Bhooni Tarah, immensely popular in the Kashmiri textile market. Innumerable autobiographies, cinemas and theatre, art galleries, local folklore and Kashmiri literature proudly showcase the tree and its leaf as an integral identity of the place.
Chinars are found growing at the Sultan-Ul-Arifeen and Hazratbal but also at Goddess Bhawani temples including the Kheer Bhawani Temple at Tulmul, Ganderbal. The Chinar tree at Shadipur, confluence of Indus-Jhelum rivers is called ‘Prayag’ by Kashmiri Pandits. The tree is so universally revered in the Valley, it unknowingly unites.
A walkway covered with rustling, warm-coloured Chinar leaves in the chilly winter breeze, still remains the most beautiful backdrop in the world to woo the hand of one’s beloved. So, this long overdue tribute to the ever constant, charming, delicate yet fiery “Boune Paen”, because a thing of beauty remains a joy forever.
The Chinar tree adorns the Jewel of our Nation – Kashmir, a place once sought after by Kings. One may easily equate the Chinar to an entity with life and soul of its own, a permanent spectator to the historical transitions of the place. Today, the tree continues to instill a sense of purpose to the Valley and is quietly witnessing change for the good.