SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir
Despite the arrival of modern means, the tradition of human alarm clocks called Saharkhans in the local language, has survived in Indian-administered Kashmir.
At the onset of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Saharkhans take the streets in the wee hours, beating drums or large gongs and reciting verses in melodious tones in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, to wake up people to take an early meal or Sehri, to begin the fast from dawn to dusk.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Aamir Aziz Bhat, 25, who has kept the ancestral tradition alive in the heart of capital Srinagar city said he took up this service five years ago, after the death of his father.
“My father was the drummer for nearly two decades,” he said.
The shouts of Waqt-e-Sahar (time to have pre-dawn meals) breaks the calm in the wee hours every night during Ramadan as he walks through the dark alleys and narrow lanes. Reciting verses and beating a drum, he also knocks on the doors and windows of houses to ensure that residents have woken up.
“I do this job to keep my father’s legacy alive and more importantly it gives me satisfaction that I am doing something good,” said Bhat, who works as a bus conductor during the day.
“This month gives me a break from my job and I devote time to work during nights to wake up people,” he said.
While Bhat is a resident of Srinagar city, most other Saharkhan, who work in other areas hail from a North Kashmir village of Kalaroos, 90 kilometers away from the city.
Mohammad Subhan Ali, 37, from the village of Kalaroos travels to Srinagar every Ramadan for over the past nine years along with his 69-year-old uncle.
He said that the Saharkhans have lived through different phases of violence, military crackdowns, and restrictions by government authorities.
But in many parts of Kashmir, this tradition has died, as Saharkhans fear for their lives, taking to the streets in the dead of night in the disturbed regions.
“In districts like Shopian in the south, you cannot move out that freely as in the city because there is always a fear of getting beaten up or killed if somehow you become susceptible to government forces,” said Ali.
Tradition on last leg
Since most of the security force personnel come from outside Kashmir, they have no idea about this tradition, he said.
He remembers that his uncle-Mohammad Khaliq Ali was beaten by the security forces for drumming and waking up people during the night. He was unable to communicate with the security forces, about his job.
“People still welcome us, kids still tell us to beat drums for them,” said Ali.
Just a couple of days before Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan, Saharkhans visit the neighborhood to collect money.
“We collect some money, rice, and sugar which is given by people in the neighborhoods happily. We earn some $150-$200$ each Ramadan,” he said.
Noted Kashmiri poet and cultural activist Zareef Ahmad Zareef said he was optimistic that this tradition will live. Tracing the history of this tradition, he said it had traveled to Kashmir from Central Asia.
“Despite the availability of modern gadgets, Saharkhan still holds its place,” said Zareef.
The septuagenarian poet said that during his childhood, the whole city of Srinagar had just one Saharkhan.
“His name was Ghulam Mohammad Bangi. He traveled many distances on foot to wake up people. He had a loud melodious voice to recite verses praising the Prophet. Every household would peer through windows to catch his glimpse,” recalls Zareef.
Bangi used to blow a sheep’s hollow horn shofar to wake up people.
“It was shaped like a coil curved several times, and he used to call it Nalai Hyder. Still, this kind of instrument is used by Saharkhans in many far-off villages,” said the poet.
Both Bhat and Ali said that more than money, the job of waking up people to prepare for fast, brings them spiritual happiness.