Keeping Ramadan tradition alive with Kashmir's Sahr Khans and the sound of their suhoor drums
As the hands of the clock tick three in the morning in the city of Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir, Mohammad Yousuf Pathan gets ready. He hangs his drum over his shoulders and with two drumsticks in his hands, he makes his way outside to follow the month-long ritual of waking the local Muslim population up for suhoor, the pre-dawn meal for the holy month of Ramadan.
"Our childhood was incomplete without the Sahr Khans and the sound of their drums"
He walks the empty streets of Habba Kadal and fills the silent night with his melodious voice, reciting Quranic verses and naats (poetry in praise of the Prophet Muhammad) while also chanting Waqtey Sahr – it is time for suhoor. He covers almost two miles on foot for an hour, beating his hung drum in a synchronising tone.
For Mohammad Pathan, the role of Srinagar's Sahr Khan, or human alarm clock, is a noble and highly rewarding task. The 35-year-old labourer from the town of Kupwara has been waking up Muslims over Ramadan for the past seven years, along with 60-year-old Mohammad Ayoub.
With a torch in one hand and a stick in the other to ward off street dogs, the elder 'human alarm clock' guides his younger accomplice through the streets he has known for more than 25 years with ease. He hopes to pass on the torch of the human alarm to Pathan stating that this may be the last year he takes the role.
“I have been doing this task from the time when there were no mobile phones and alarm clocks," Mohammad Ayoub tells The New Arab. "But I fear that with the advance of modern gadgets this tradition will soon die."
The Sahr Khans of Kashmir
Since he was a child, Pathan had always been fascinated with the Sahr Khans. Although too young to fast, the drums and melodies would wake him up in the early mornings which is where his interest in the centuries-old Kashmir tradition grew.
"Our childhood was incomplete without the Sahr Khans and the sound of their drums,” says Pathan. “I never imagined that people will be peeking out from their windows to see me beating the drum for suhoor the same way I used to for the Sahr Khans during my childhood."
“Being a Sahr Khan in Kashmir is not that easy as the place is filled with fear and uncertainties... But we go out with the belief that we are under the protection of Allah"
Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since their independence from British rule in 1947 and the nuclear-armed rivals have fought two wars over the Himalayan region. An armed rebellion erupted in Indian Kashmir in 1989 and tens of thousands have been killed since.
Separatist groups and parties demand independence for the Muslim-majority province or its merger with Pakistan. Tensions have also risen since the Hindu nationalist government ended the region's semi-autonomy and put it under direct central control in August 2019.
“Being a Sahr Khan in Kashmir is not that easy as the place is filled with fear and uncertainties," Pathan continues. "But we go out with the belief that we are under the protection of Allah.
"We are required to inform the local police about our movement days before the onset of Ramadan, just to avoid any untoward incident," he adds.
In the 1990s, when the armed insurgency was at its peak in Kashmir, the Sahr Khan tradition faced a huge setback and many had to quit their roles. But over time, as the situation saw some improvements, the Sahr Khans returned to their Ramadan business.
“Initially, my family objected to this job considering the uncertainties revolving around it. But I persuaded them it’s for the sake of the Almighty and He will reward us handsomely hereafter, InshAllah (God willing)," Pathan continues.
"My priority is always to wake people up first and then get back for my own suhoor."
Though there are various versions of the evolution of the human alarm clock in Kashmir, the majority of historians believe that the Sahr Khans have been waking Muslims up for suhoor since the time of Hazrat Bulbul Shah (Syed Sharf-Ud-Din Abdul Rehman Shah), a 14th-century Turkistani Sufi of Suhrawardi order who introduced Islam to Kashmir.
The Sahr Khans are usually offered food and drink, and sometimes money, as a token of love and appreciation for their incredible work by the local residents. Although they don’t have any fixed wages, they take whatever is given without complaining and resume their normal life after the holy month of Ramadan ends. They also bear the expenses of the repairs of drums and their replacements.
Abdul Gani, 70, a local resident, hails the Sahr Khans as heroes. “The drummers add to the zeal and zest of the holy month. They are an inseparable part of our rich tradition and enrich the experience of Ramadan," the elder says.
"In my entire lifetime, I have never missed seeing drummers during the month of Ramadan. But the recent Covid lockdowns imposed by the government impacted their movement to a certain level," he added.
Over the last two years, the Sahr Khans – mainly belonging to distant rural areas – were confined to their native regions as the inter-district transport was absent from roads amid restrictions imposed by the authorities to contain the spread of Covid.
“I am happy to be back beating the drums and waking people for suhoor," Pathan says. "This is what I have been wishing for and finally Allah has given me another chance to work at midnight and continue this noble work.
"This special role hails from our ancestors and I shall continue performing it until my last breath,” says Pathan proudly.
Mehran Bhat is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir covering conflict and society. His work has been published in The Quint, Article 14, Live Wire and more.
Follow him on Twitter: @mehranbhat97
Aadil Manzoor is a freelance journalist with interests in tech, data and digital privacy.
Follow him on Twitter: @_aadilmanzoor