The drone of Irshad Ahmad’s tasselled drums drub throughout the pre-dawn darkness of Srinagar’s Eidgah locality. Next comes his melodious voice, calling out into the otherwise silent night: “Waqhtay-Sahar (It is the time for the pre-dawn meals)!”
Such moonlit minstrels are known as Sahar Khans, the human alarm clocks for the people of Kashmir during the holy month of Ramadan. For 30 days their ritual is to walk the streets at night, beating their drums to remind their fellow Muslims to wake up for the last meal before dawn; they break the slumber of Srinagar to help the people of the valley maintain an unbroken fast throughout the day.
For the past seven years, Irshad Ahmad, 26, has been working as a Sahar Khan. He comes from Manigah, a small village in the Kupwara district. “Almost all the men of our village do this,” says Ahmad, adding “and one-third of Kashmir’s Sahar Khans are from Kupwara.” For him, it all started when one Ramadan his uncle, a Sahar Khan, was not able to come to Srinagar due to his ill health. He asked Ahmad if he could do the job. Ahmad, who had always wanted to do this, jumped at the opportunity.
“My uncle remembered all the names of households of the Eidgah locality. And, at night, he would wake all of them up by their names. For example, someone’s name was Ali Mohammad, (so) he would shout, Ali Mohammadaa wothsah (Ali Mohammad get up)! Waqt-e-sahar wout (It’s time to eat sahar).”After a few months, his uncle died and he took up the job permanently. The year Ahmad became a Sahar Khan was also the same year he got married to his childhood love. Now, he has three children with her: one son and two daughters. Until last year, he would bring his family with him to his rented room in Srinagar, but this year, due to the pandemic, he came all alone. He was afraid that if they got sick all the money earned would be spent on the medical bills.
Every year Ahmad comes to the Eidgah area of Srinagar a few days before the onset of Ramadan. In order to make his presence felt that a Sahar Khan has come in the neighborhood—he roams around during the day beating his drum to attract people’s attention. On the eve of Ramadan, he and his helper set out at around 2:20 a.m. “At that time, (my) eyes automatically open and I find it difficult to sleep because I know that an entire locality is waiting for me,” says Ahmad. While he beats the drum his helper carries a torch and a stick to ward off packs of street dogs. As they roam the neighbourhood, strays run away into narrow alleys, whereas children climb onto window sills to cherish the moment of a Sahar Khan playing his drum. At around 3:45 a.m., he is back in his room and starts his own sehri preparation.
During the day, Ahmad works as a labourer. Sometimes he gets hired to chop wood or carry bricks. Other days, when he can’t find any employer, he kills time by listening to the radio or enjoying discussions with his helper. Depending upon the nature of the work, he makes around Rs 300 to Rs 500 per day. However, as a Sahar Khan, there are no fixed or definite wages; they don’t demand money as it is a job they themselves take up willingly. At the end of Ramadan, they go from door to door and “whatever people give from their heart, we receive,” says Irshad. “Some give clothes, rice, sugar, or wheat. Some give footwear, money or anything they like. And the food we get from here lasts around three to four months. With that at least we don’t starve at home.”
This year Ahmad has some extra expenses: He has to pay rent for his drum. “My drum broke down last year. So I brought one on rent for Rs. 3,000 per season. I wanted to buy a new one but it would cost me Rs 10,000 and during these unprecedented times it was difficult to get one. Also, if you get a drum in Srinagar, it does not have very good quality. The sound coming from that drum is not up to the mark. So, we only get the one from our own village. It is very loud.”
For Ahmad, coming to Srinagar during Ramadan is a source of utmost happiness. Going out in the middle of the night and waking people up is primarily his passion, he says. “I become very happy when I become a reason for someone to leave their bed for Allah and eat the pre-dawn meal. It’s a job of high reward (Sawaab ka kaam hai ye).” Even as the pandemic has marked a drop in demand for his services, Ahmad continues to uphold his seasonal profession—for him, it’s not only an act of pious homage but a dear hobby. “In the old times, my uncle and elders used to sing Pahadi songs, along with drums, when they would go out in the night. They also used to blow hollow animal horns called Nalla-e-Hyder. It made a loud and distinct sound. But the new generation does not do that. It’s no longer used… maybe because the new generation is not as dedicated as the previous one.”
Technology has also played a hand in drumming out these once-central figures of Kashmiri Ramadan celebrations, their future uncertain as more people now rely on loudspeakers and phone alarms. Despite the technological shift, Ahmad is optimistic and believes that the tradition has its own charm as well as vital religious significance, an outlook attested to by his own dedication; he is among the few new-generation Ramadan drummers in Srinagar who continue to perform the centuries-old tradition.
“Some people don’t get up from sleep and they know that the Sahar Khan will come and they will wake up. Although everyone has an alarm clock and smartphones with them for us it’s just a passion. It’s what our ancestors have been doing for ages. And with Allah’s help, we would continue this as long as we are alive.”