I have been to Istanbul, Prague and Iran and seen chinars or plane trees. Within India, even Nainital has them. But nowhere do they grow as majestic and spectacular as they do in the Kashmir Valley, where they dominate the landscape with their height, girth and the changing colour of their leaves with the passing of the seasons: that is something you will find nowhere else.
The British, inveterate tree planters, at once ‘got’ the point of planting the chinar. Of course, they did not have to hunt for a precedent. They merely followed the example of their forbearers, the Mughals, who are creditted with bringing the tree to the Valley (although the oldest chinar in the Valley predates the Mughals in Kashmir by a couple of centuries). The inexplicable part is that it is said to grow east of the Balkans, but in other countries where it does grow – I have personally seen it in Prague, Istanbul and Iran, it attains none of the proportions that it does in Kashmir. Why, even the “smouldering coal” parallel that is believed to have caused the name “che naar” (naar means fire in Farsi} is far more pronounced in Kashmir than in, say, Iran, where chinars are just as tall or short as any other tree and do not turn spectacularly red in the autumn.
The newer parts of Srinagar city are set with chinar trees that tower over the landscape. The four seasons in Kashmir follow the seasons of the temperate zone: spring, summer, autumn, winter. The chinar is at its most splendid in the autumn. It is at its darkest green in summer, when its shade is at its most dense. A large part of the magic of autumn in the Valley is because of the chinar tree whose leaves change from gold to russet to scarlet to brown. Because of the shape of the leaf – a five pointed “palmate, deeply lobed” leaf, not unlike the sycamore or maple, each leaf looks imposing in itself in summer, but because of the five points, it can – and is – compared to a human hand with five fingers.
While you can find chinar trees in many parts of the Valley, there is something poetic about those trees that give shade to graveyards. To be laid to eternal rest in the shade of a 300 year old tree whose leaves change with the passing of the seasons is to be given as picturesque burial as possible. In Srinagar, the new parts of the city: around Polo View, on the Bund, across the Jhelum in Rajbagh, down Residency Road as well as Maulana Azad Road and down Dalgate, you will find fine old trees. In summer, you will be glad of their shade. Cross Hazratbal and head towards Ganderbal and chinar trees are at their most dense. Few other districts of Kashmir have such an enviable chinar population as Ganderbal.
Walnut trees are used to make beautifully carved furniture, cedar, pine and fir are used to clad walls and make houseboats in the Valley. Even the humble willow is famously used to make cricket bats. But the chinar tree is not used for anything at all. Perhaps it is just as well. Nowadays, you hardly get to see a majestic walnut tree in the Valley: so precious is the wood, that even a modest-sized tree is cut down to make a table or a door in some businessman’s home. How tragic it would have been if a mighty chinar had to meet the same fate.
In Kashmir in general and Srinagar in particular, the chinar tree is so closely identified with the land that as soon as you think of monumental architecture, the chinar automatically comes to mind. There is one place that it seems to me to be misplaced, and that is on the lawns of Hazratbal Dargah. The whole charm of the first marble dome in Kashmir is to be able to spot it from across the Dal, but once the chinar trees in the gardens grow to their full size, the mosque will be obscured from view. To me, weeping willows would have been much more appropriate on the lawns of Hazratbal. They would have added a whimsical touch, provided tree cover, yet not obscured the milky dome.
In the Kashmir landscape, three trees stand out: the chinar, the willow and the poplar. To be sure, there are several other trees, including coniferous ones and fruit trees (Kashmiri apples are deservedly famous after all). But for sheer majesty, few silhouettes can match the mighty chinar.
You don’t need to visit Srinagar’s University grounds in the height of summer. Late autumn will do just fine. That is when you will be able to appreciate Emperor Akbar’s vision for what it was. You see, Naseem Bagh, which translates to Garden of Breezes, was the labour of love of the first Mughal Emperor to set foot in Kashmir in 1586. He chose a spot on the banks of the Dal, eschewing a higher vantage point on a hill on the opposite side of the lake. He planted it with 1,200 plane trees. Even today, the neat – if unimaginative – grid of trees can clearly be seen. No flowers. No charbagh (four-part) plan, which has always been the prototype of a formal garden in the Islamic world, where gardens were likened to paradise. Emperor Akbar planted no grass. There were no channelled water courses. There were no stepped terraces. Indeed, besides the unending rows, there was no human intervention. Perhaps that was his concept. Certainly it lives up to its name even today, with the breezes carried by the waters of the Dal.
By the time Emperor Jehangir ascended the throne, not only was the Mughal court advanced, but Jehangir and his Empress
Nur Jehan were both in love with Kashmir. No simple rows of chinars for this emperor. He built Shalimar Bagh. Summer
may be the best time to have a picnic in the lawns and enjoy the gentle spray from the fountains, but if you want to understand the architecture of the garden and the part that the chinar tree plays in it, you will have to visit in late November. Much more than evanescent blossoms that are gone within a few days or weeks, the chinar has been planted in majestic rows. It defines the length of the garden much more than the waterway does. It gives shade in summer and for the rest of the year, it shows off its skeleton – and thereby the thought process of the aesthete who conceptualized it all in his head, centuries before computer software could bring plans to life.
Autumn is the season that celebrates the chinar like no other. The Americans certainly have a point calling it fall. To be walking
under a chinar tree when a gentle gust of wind sprays the air with a few dried leaves is to know magic. For the leaves softly
fall to earth with an ever so gentle rustling sound. I never fail to turn around, expecting to see someone behind me, until I realize it was the sound that the leaves make, as they go to their grave. The five point leaves begin to resemble human hands – sometimes outstretched in supplication; sometimes like a fist refusing to relinquish its secret. In the mesh that separates the Golf Club from MA Road, you will occasionally see gnarled brown leaves caught in the mesh like ancient golfers come to see one last game. You can speculate endlessly about the shape of the leaves, the way they sigh in the breeze, the way they spiral in the air, their myriad colours, the way they carpet the pavements, ditches, gardens and roofs in late autumn. And in winter, you admire the grace and strength of the entire tree, even without the dignity of their garment of foliage.