“In past, a stranger entering any village of Chitral would pause for a while to look for a house with a tall tree of chinar by its side where he could find shelter to take rest for a short while or an overnight stay. The very presence of chinar tree near a house showed that its occupants are affluent enough to afford hospitality to the travellers who had walked a long distance or travelled by riding a horse,” says nonagenarian Shah Zareen of Kosht village of Upper Chitral.
Relating importance of the tree species as a sign of grandeur and opulence, he said that chinar was part and parcel of culture in every village where it stood loftily and dwarfed all other trees, but would give a splendid view of the muddy houses of that time.
“In sweltering afternoons of summer season, the men folk of the village assemble under its shade and also attend the pastimes. The jirga meetings on local level were held here and it was an open community hall of the small hamlet where congregations such as marriage parties were also held,” he said.
Chinar is an endangered species in Chitral whose number in on a steep decline due to ruthless and unchecked cutting of the trees. Having a botanical name of platanus orientalis, chinar tree takes about 150 years to gain its full size with a height of about 30 metres.
The main fort of Chitral and the seven fortresses in different valleys across the district still have a large number of chinar trees with the age of 200 years and above. The ageing trees of chinar above 200 years were in thousands in different valleys, including Chitral town, till 1980s, but presently their number is in hundreds. One of the reasons being cited for felling of chinar trees is that it encompasses a large area and with the increasing population the landholding is on steep decline. The agricultural land in Chitral is about four per cent of the total area. The owners of the land under the tree cannot afford to go it waste and eventually chop it down to free the land.
In Chitral town, a number of chinar trees of significant size were cut for constructing government offices and widening of roads during the last four decades, which included the historical chinar tree in Jughoor village named as Chumuti chinar. Its sapling had been reportedly planted by Shah Mahmud Rais, the second last ruler of Rais dynasty who ruled from 1574 to 1590. The villagers said that though the natural growth of the tree had been stopped, it was still green and likely to survive for many decades to come. The cutting of chinar trees in front of the historical Shahi Masjid Chitral (built in 1927) two decades ago had led to impacting its phenomenal outlook in the backdrop of Terich Mir, the highest peak of Hindukush mountains.
Chinar wood is said to be favourite for making furniture and carving works and this induces owners of the tree to cut and sell it in the market.
Chinar trees in most of the villages would have their local names which demonstrated the close and sentimental link of the villagers with them. The folk tales and songs replete with chinar also highlight the relation between the tree species and local people in the past. The folk song of 19th century is still famous among the people and one of its lines “Sharana Zhang chinar Hate Mula Sardawi” is sung by all and sundry.
The large-sized leaves of chinar gave a spectacular sight of autumn colour when they turned orange-red and magnified the beauty of the surroundings. The tree provides a ‘shelter house’ to the birds of all species present in a village during nighttime where they go beyond access of the hunters.
The residents of the villages observed that the number of bird species had become extinct with the loss of trees over the years which provided them an ideal sanctuary and breeding place. The local craftsmen of woodcarving for household articles, etc have been emulating the typical patterns in the bark of chinar tree.
Hamid Ahmed Mir, a local environmentalist, said that the loss of chinar trees in large number in a certain place would surely lead to environmental degradation. Being a large green body, such trees help regulate the temperature locally, he said and suggested ban on chopping of chinar trees which had acquired the age of 100 years.
When contacted for his comments, deputy commissioner of Lower Chitral Naveed Ahmed said that he was, in principle, in favour of banning cutting of chinar trees. He said that any building or tree attaining the age of 100 years was declared heritage and as such chinar trees should be protected as they had environmental, historical and cultural importance in Chitral.
He said that he would send a proposal to the quarters concerned in his regard.
Divisional forest officer Shaukat Fiaz said that he had banned transportation of chinar wood out of the district, but imposing a ban on cutting of the trees by their owners was beyond his authority.
Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2019