The dying Kashmiri tradition of Sahar Khan

For four years MUHAMMAD RAFIQ AWAM, 35, has been acting as a human alarm – walking the streets of Srinagar, beating a drum, to wake the faithful during Ramadan in Kashmir. Awam shares his experiences of being a Sahar Khan (drummer) with Rifat Mohidin.

I belong to a village in Kupwara, which is in the border district in Kashmir. Our village, Kalroosa, is known as the village of Sahar Khan. In almost every family there is one male who works in the urban areas of Kashmir as a drummer to wake people up for Sehri, the pre-dawn meal.

This culture is in my blood and I have grown up witnessing elders in my family doing it – no one taught me to play drums and be a Sahar Khan; I learnt myself and began to do it. My father and uncle, who acted as Sahar Khan for 30 years, are old now so I am carrying their responsibility.

We keenly wait for this month – days before Ramadaan we start our journey with our drums to Srinagar. We live in the hills so we hardly come to Srinagar for the rest of the year. It takes me whole day to travel from my village to Srinagar.

Initially, I would fear the dark streets due to the dogs and the political situation, but now I am used to it. Each morning I walk about 3km and beat the drum in all the lanes and by-lanes of a locality in Srinagar, so that everyone can wake up for their pre-dawn meals and begin their day-long fast.

I wake up at 1.30am and prepare to go out in the dark streets. I take my meals before I leave for my work from the rented room where I stay for the month. Then I start walking, and chant “Waqte-sahar” (Time for dawn) along with the drum beats and at 3.30am I am finished with my work.

Because this is the month of charity and helping each other, some people invite us to their homes for Iftar. It feels good being away from home and sharing the time with people.

Most of the people are in this work because of poverty back home. For the rest of the year, we work as labourers. As our Sahar Khan work is confined to night, during the day we work as labourers – if we are able to find work – while the rest of the days we spend without doing anything.

Even though my parents and grandparents have been doing it for the last 50 years, I tell you – Sahar Khan is a profession driven by poverty. Though we want to save this age-old tradition, we want to earn well also.

I think the perception of Sahar Khan for people has changed – I see this culture dying. It seems our work is obsolete to people now that there are mobile phones and other gadgets which wake people up. Now I see a change – people don’t feel a need to have a Sahar Khan near their doors at dawn.

Though we come here, travelling long distances, we are not being welcomed the way our elders were. They used to enjoy their work and people would wholeheartedly give to them, and treat them well.

We are not being encouraged. At the end of the month our earning is about 2,000 rupees (about R340) and a few bags of rice that we collect from the locality where we work.

As it is nearly Eid, we will be going back to our village soon. Most of the Sahar Khan in all the localities of Srinagar are from our village so we go together in 30 trucks and take the bags of rice.

The first day of Eid – the festive day at the end of month-long fast – we spend in Srinagar to collect Eidi [monetary gifts] from the locals and leave for home in the evening to see our families after a gap of 30 days. My children are always excited for this day to see me back home and bringing them gifts.

Despite the challenges, I will continue to wake up the faithful in Ramadaan while I am alive – life will look incomplete without it.

– As told to: Rifat Mohidin.
– Featured image: By Rifat Mohidin. 
Rifat Mohidin bio picRifat Mohidin is a journalist based in Kashmir. Follow her on Twitter.