By: Irfan Ali Shah (IFS)

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 1.58.51 PMBurza in Kashmir has many meanings and contexts

Burza refers to Burzhama: an Archeological Neolithic site located beside National Park of Dachigam ,on the high karewa( clay soil) referred to UNESCO as World Heritage and Cultural site. Burzahom means settlement with use of birch trees.  In the Kashmiri language ‘Burzahom’ means “birch”, a tree species (that generally grows in the elevation range of 3,000 to 4,200 metres , which is found in the excavated housing area in the form of roofing material, and thus confirming the existence of the tree even in the pre-historic Neolithic times.

2)  Burza also refers to Birch tree  in the genera Betula, which is the Latin word for “to shine,” belonging to family betulaceae. used previously as roofing material in the prehistoric times close to Indus valley civilization. A concerned citizen Mr Sanjay Dhar says ‘During restoration of Chamba Lakhang (15 – 16 th C) Temple in Basgo Ladakh. We discovered that a layer of Burza Birch bark had been laid over the wooden slats before covering up with clay. This was to prevent dust and clay from falling through the joins in the wooden slats. And more importantly to prevent water seepage into the temple. To the best of my knowledge Burza has not been found in any other place…chances are that during roof renovations it may have been removed so that we do not find many examples…on the other hand the use of burza in Basgo can not be a one off incident and we may have to consider wider usage at least in the early centuries to 16th C.’ He further adds that Burza was also used on shingle roofs in Kashmir. I have seen this myself…the shingle would be covered with Burza over which clay used to be put….fantastic greens and yellows roofs during spring.

Burza is water proof/nondegradable and does not have much of reaction to changes in humidity…..almost zero contraction expansion. Though in sheet it tears easily but in multiple ply has much strength..etc.

“I remember my grandpa had built a mini house somewhere near Nishat Bagh way back in early nineties the roof of which was made of wooden planks covered with Buraza tree bark & over it a layer of about 4 inches soil. In early sixties I have seen local red Tulips flowering on it during Spring time. During mid sixties (after Indo-Pak war in 1965 ended) this roof was replaced by tin sheets. I remember as I have seen the Burza bark was looking fresh & I did collect some of it as my father that time had said Buza bark was used in the past for writing especially for “Taveez” by saintly persons” says Mr AR Shah,Ex-DFO J&K Forest Department.

3)  Birch wood used for fuel due to excellent burning and superb calorific value is still used by endangered Dards/Shina community in the exotic Gurez -Tulail -Kishanganga valley.Birch bark wrapped in layers was harvested by our elders and used as writing material ,in fact many manuscripts written in Sanskrit , Sharda etc are still preserved.Village hakeem recommend it’s bark decoction for getting relief from cough ,cold,lung congestion.As per Vedic rituals ,Bhojpatr bark is employed for religious ceremonies and vedic rituals . The Roman period Vindolanda tablets also use birch as a material on which to write and birch bark was used widely in ancient Russia as note paper (beresta) and for decorative purposes and even making footwear.

4) Burza also refers to Burza Washan Village is the 9th smallest village by area in the sub district Kerri of Baramulla . Nearest town of the village is Baramulla and distance from Burza Washan village to Baramulla is 34 km. The village comes under Kakawthal panchayat. Kreeri is the sub district head quarter and the distance from the village is 14 km. The village is named after Birch tree but there is no birch tree there due to ecological reasons.

5) Burza also refers to an elite caste/ clan in Kashmir who have been forest leases and made their fortunes out of forest contractorship and are the promoters of Ahad Hotels chain, also known as Heeven Group.

6) Our history and culture depict old association of early man with Burza tree/ Birch tree and demarcates last treeline’s in Sub-alpine and alpine eco-zones.Birch survival is linked to low snowfall, drying and deformation, failed regeneration ,poor seedling recruitment as a result its population decline is occurring in Kashmir Himalayas otherwise occurs by river-sides and is dominantly a lowland tree in the other part of the world and is also important component of Boreal forests.

7) I have observed Burza trees either in solitary mode or in even aged stands or in patches sometimes with natural associates of rhododendron and Juniperus species in various parts of Kashmir forests especially in Sub-alpine,mid-alpine and alpine Eco- zones like Burzil pass and Razdaan pass in Gurez valley,Simthan pass near Daksum Rajparian Wildlife sanctuary, Zojila pass above Baltal Sonamarg, Thajwas Wildlife sanctuary,Z-gali pass connecting Matchil forests with Kashmir, Sadhna and Meelyal passes connecting Karnah and Keran forests respectively.

A very rare association of Burza trees, I observed enroute last year while trekking to Gangabal lake at the base of Harmukh mountain,Pinus wallichiana( Kail) with Betula utilis ( Birch/ Burza). Burza also refers to abode of God crow group( also called as MURDER) on a birch tree.In kashmiri it’s called Dev Kaw.

8) As per books, Global birches are of 60 different kinds ,centre of diversity is central China, basic chromosome number is taken as 14 and ploidy has played a major role in its diversification,species with chromosome count of 28,42,56,70,84 are reported.Chromosome size is small and to study cytology is not easy , Feulgan Tienda double staining method developed for Drosophila is useful here as well.

9) Burza also refers to storm in English. The Ornas birch is the national tree of Sweden. The Czech word for the month of March, Brezen, is derived from the Czech word briza meaning birch, as birch trees flower in March under local conditions. The silver birch tree is of special importance to the Swedish city of Umea. In 1888, the Umea city fire spread all over the city and nearly burnt it down to the ground, but some birches, supposedly, halted the spread of the fire. To protect the city against future fires, it was decided to plant silver birch trees all over the city. Umea later adopted the unofficial name of “City of the Birches “(Bjorkarnas stad)”. Also, the ice hockey team of Umea is called Bjorkloven, translated to English “The Birch Leaves”.

“Swinging” birch trees was a common game for American children in the nineteenth century. American poet Lucy Larcom’s “Swinging on a Birch Tree” celebrates the game. The poem inspired Robert Frost, who pays homage to the act of climbing birch trees in his more famous poem, “Birches”

10) Burza also refers to Burza families who moved over time by selecting different census years. The Burza family name was found in the USA, and the UK between 1880 and 1920. The most Burza families were found in the USA in 1920. In 1880 there was 1 Burza family living in New York. This was 100% of all the recorded Burza’s in the USA. New York had the highest population of Burza families in 1880.

11) Birch trees are deciduous ,flowers monoecious ,male catkins drooping , female catkins erect ,bud burst takes in late spring ,bark is silvery white in Himalayan Birch but elsewhere colour determines names of different birches as Black Birch ,White Birch ,Red Birch ,Grey Birch ,Yellow Birch.Some taxa based on habit and habitat are named as Bog Birch ,Dwarf Birch,Hairy Birch ,Paper Birch.

12) Burza also refers to Kashmiri Pandit surname.

13) Birch tree is national tree of nations like Finland ,Russia.Birch leaf are single or double serrate and have thin texture. Farmhouses rooftops made of Birch bark are common sight in Scandinavian countries.Canada has species like Betula papyrifera. Moths, butterflies during larval stage feed on its leaves. Bark decoction useful in human ailments like hairfall, jaundice, urinary tract infection, kidney stones, liver disorders, lung congestion, arthritis, cholesterol, blood pressure, skin ailments, fever etc.

14) The seed of yellow and paper birches, like that of many other species, often exhibits delayed germination, which apparently is due to embryo dormancy. Stratification is usually recommended for overcoming this dormancy before the seed is sown or before it is tested for germination.

15) Most of the gene pool which we observe in Kashmir is phenotypically inferior stock and questions remain to be answered as regards it’s genetic lineage in Kashmir given the basal buttressing, drying and deformations observed in its natural genetic stocks in valley.Regeneration of birch is rarely observed and I am yet to see a 3-4 year old seedling in any of its natural habitational forest.

16) Birch Bark and leaf phytochemicals contain betulinic acid ,ascorbic acid ,flavonoids , tannins.Wood is hard ,takes polish easily and shows grain decoration.Wood is resonant wood and popular for drum making as it provides both low and high frequencies.Used in Birch beer ,Birch sap ,Birch oil ,Birch tar preparation and also finds use in cosmetic industry.

17) How old do birch trees get? The answer to this question depends in part on the species of the tree. It also depends on its growing conditions. Paper birch trees (Betula papyrafera), also known as white birch or silver birch, are popular garden trees. The species is native to this continent. The lifespan of a paper birch in the wild is between 80 and 140 years. Cultivated paper birches have a much shorter life if they are grown in the home landscape.

Here they may only live between 30 and 40 years. Some species of birch can live hundreds of years under optimal conditions. For example, the yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) can live for up to 300 years, although its average lifespan is 150 years in the wild. And the sweet birch (Betula lenta) can live to be 250 years. Birch tree lifespans decrease when the trees are planted in a backyard for a variety of reasons. First, cultivated birch trees often get inadequate irrigation, insufficient sun, and, given those stress factors, they suffer from diseases and pest damage. This can reduce the lifespan of a birch in your backyard to less than 20 years

18) Birch conservation in natural habitats by way of preservation plots ,ex-situ measures by formation of high tech Birch nurseries , establishing Birch seed banks ,new Birch multiplication techniques . Biotechnological interventions are very much desired.Kashmir Birch Research centre is the need of the hour where high end scientific research on standardisation of its cultivation/ raising technique could be done, studies on its history, ecology, utilisation, cultural links and it’s global importance could be done. We may form a registered trust called as Burza Foundation under whose aegeis research scholars/ birch fellows/ Burza fellows could study and come out with Doctoral and Post-Doctoral level research thesis encompassing various facets of Burza and help in better understanding of the word BURZA.

(The author is Conservator of Forests, Srinagar Forest Circle)

Disclaimer: The article is largely based on my experiences in the field and knowledge of the subject however the help of learned seniors, friends and various other sources including books on the subject matter is dully acknowledged in the compilation of this article . The article is open to comments/ rectifications/ corrections/healthy criticism please. You may send your responses to irfanaliifs@gmail.com

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