Every year, just a few days before the start of the holy month of Ramzan, 27-year-old Muhammad Altaf Khatana picks up his drum and leaves his home in Kalaroos village in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district for Srinagar, 90 km away.
He rents a room on the outskirts of the city, close to the neighbourhoods that he will visit with his drum at night during Ramzan. He walks through the dark alleys and narrow by-lanes at 2 am to wake people up for sehri (pre-dawn meals to start the fasting day). Midnight drummers like Khatana are locally known as sahar khans in Kashmir.
“Waqt-e-sahar (it’s time to have pre-dawn meals),” Khatana shouts at the top of his voice. Lights start coming on in houses as he passes. Sehri is usually had from 3-3.45am. He moves from one lane to the next, calling out “Waqt-e-sahar” and beating the drum.
After walking through several streets in the neighbourhood, usually over an hour, he returns to his room and has his sehri. He repeats this schedule for the 30 days of Ramzan.
“We work as labourers for the rest of the year, and doing this work for the month of Ramzan also gives us a break from the physical labour work which is difficult for us to do during the month of fasting,” says Khatana.
He has been going to Srinagar for over six years. He is not alone—his 66-year-old uncle, some relatives and neighbours also work as sahar khans in the city during this time. Kalaroos, in fact, is known as the village of sahar khans.
The age-old tradition has survived the challenges of the past three decades. The sahar khans have lived through and negotiated military crackdowns through the turbulent 1990s, as well as restrictions imposed by government authorities from time to time. Khatana’s uncleMehraj ud Din, who has been drumming in Srinagar for over a decade, says there have been times when he was asked to stop beating his drum, turned back, and even beaten up by Armed Forces patrols. But at other times, he was allowed to proceed once he explained the nature of his work.
Despite all this, and the widespread use of mobile phones and alarm clocks, the night drummers continue to lend a distinct character and enrich the experience of Ramzan—most people still welcome them, though their work is beginning to take a hit.
Showkat Ahmed Sheikh, a 45-year-old sahar khan from Koil village in Pulwama district, says one of his cousins, who used to work as a sahar khan in Pulwama, was told by residents last year not to disturb them as they set the alarm on their phones.
Sheikh, who has inherited the tradition from his father and has been playing the drum since he was a young boy, took his cousin’s drum and has given it to his 18-year-old son, who began accompanying him on his Ramzan rounds last year. He has also bought a new drum for ₹10,000—the sound quality is said to be better and travels longer distances.
“He loves to accompany me for the whole month of Ramzan,” says Sheikh, happy that his son is showing interest. “He’s quickly learning the art of beating the drum to wake up people at sehri. Sometimes, he innovates and beats the drum in his own youthful style,” he adds with a smile.
At the end of the month, just a couple of days before Eid, the sahar khans visit the houses in the areas they have been serving. “We collect some money and some rice which is given by people in the neighbourhoods we serve,” says Khatana. “More than any material rewards, we feel happy to help wake up people to observe their fast in this sacred month of Ramzan.”
The sahar khans make about ₹3,000-4,000 each season. Usually, they get about ₹200-300 per household.
BRING ON THE DRUMS
Khatana says preparations begin at their homes 10 days before the start of the holy month. The drums, which cost ₹3,000-10,000 depending on the quality, are brought from Lolab, about 30km from their village. Situated near the Line of Control in Kupwara district, these are Lolab’s speciality. The drums can also be customized to the specific needs of a sahar khan; they can, for instance, ask specifically for covers and decorative items.
Over the decades, each neighbourhood in Srinagar has been served by a couple of sahar khans, some of them coming from districts like Kupwara. Mehraj ud Din, for instance, arrives in the city a few days before the start of the holy month along with his two sons, a couple of relatives and neighbours from his village.
Mehraj wants to continue serving people during Ramzan for as long as he can. “This gives me satisfaction and sawab (reward) more than the little earnings we make out of it at the end of the month,” he says. “People welcome us and we want to keep this tradition alive.”
PAST AND PRESENT
Noted Kashmiri poet and cultural activist Zareef Ahmad Zareef is optimistic that the sahar khan tradition, which came to the valley from Central Asia, will survive the modern age.
“People have the latest alarm clocks and mobile phones but still we can see sahar khans moving around on the streets here waking up people with their drums every Ramzan,” says Zareef. “Ramzan in Kashmir will look incomplete without sahar khans.”
Zareef, who is in his mid-70s, says that when he was a child, there was only one sahar khan in Srinagar—he would travel 4km by foot from Kanqah to Chatabal.
“His name was Ghulam Mohammad Baengi. He used to carry and blow a sheep’s hollow horn to wake up people at night during Ramzan. It was shaped like a coil curved several times, and he used to call it ‘Nalai Hyder’,” says Zareef.
“He would recite naat (poetry in praise of Prophet Muhammad) while walking the empty streets at night. People, mostly children, would sometimes stay up till late night to see him. They would peer out through their windows to catch his glimpse.”
Today, Sheikh says the Armed Forces personnel patrolling the streets are also aware of his drum-beating schedule. “Sometimes, when I pass through bunkers or army camps, they direct their torches towards us and let us pass by,” he says. “They also know now that we move out at midnight to wake up people during this month.
“He will, InshaAllah, continue this tradition after me,” Sheikh says of his son. “Amis chu ye shoek (it’s his passion).”