During this holy month of Ramadan, in the quiet of the night, a Sahar Khawan hits the streets beating his drum. He breaks the silence of the night, waking up the faithful to take their pre-dawn meals and keep the fast.
Today, when people possess latest electronic gadgets like mobile phones and alarm-clocks, Sahar Khawans have still not lost their significance. "A person who wakes up after an alarm may again fall asleep quickly, but a person who wakes up after hearing the sound of the drum doesn't fall asleep again," says Muhammad Ashraf Aawaan, a Sahar Khawan from HMT, Srinagar. "The sound of a drum at night penetrates the ears and leaves a stronger impression." Besides, in rural areas of Kashmir everybody doesn't possess a phone or an alarm clock. "In our village, everybody doesn't possess a phone. Everybody can't wake up with the help of an alarm clock, so we still have a role to play," says Ghulam Muhammad Wani, a Sahar Khawan from Ohangam, Beerwah. "The advent of nuclear-family system has made our job all the more relevant."
The job of Sahar Khawans is not an easy one and involves discomfort. They've to wake up early, hit the streets with their drums, wake up people, and then they themselves take pre-dawn meals. "I wake up at 2 am and go around the streets of HMT beating the drum," says Muhammad Ashraf. "It takes almost two hours to reach every nook and corner of the locality," he says. A Sahar Khawan wakes up at a time when other people are sleeping. "Ours is not an easy job. We pick up the drum and negotiate the ups and downs of the streets in the darkness and even in rough weather conditions," says Wali Muhammad, a Sahar Khawan from Peerbagh, Srinagar. Then there're other hardships. There's danger from wild animals and Army patrols which makes their job risky. "We often used to move about the streets in groups because of the dangers of wild animals and Army patrols," says Ghulam Muhammad Wani. "I've met army and other people while performing my duty in past, but thank God I was never questioned or harmed," he says.
Working in the nights has made Sahar Khawans excellent managers of time. They make plans in advance, study the geographical placement of their locality, analyse the streets and chalk out an effective strategy. "We've gained experience now. I've got an experience of around 30 years as a Sahar Khawan. I make plans in advance regarding the starting and ending point of my journey", says a composed Wali Muhammad. "I keep other necessary equipment such as a torch and an umbrella handy so that emergency situation can be handled well."
Sahar Khawans have been waking up people in Kashmir since ages in the month of Ramadan. With the advent of Islam in Kashmir in the medieval time, fasting began to be observed during the month of Ramadan. The origin of Sahar Khawans dates back to the 8th century A.D. This was the time when Hazrat Bulbul Shah (RA) began to preach Islam in Kashmir. "Sahar Khwans have been waking people up for the pre-dawn meals since the 8th century," says Professor Muhammad Ashraf who teaches in the Department of History, University of Kashmir. "A particular sect of Kashmiri society was responsible for the night-vigil of villages. They used to beat the drum while making the sounds and also in cases of emergency." During medieval times, this sect of Kashmiri society used to make vigils around the villages and localities during the nights to protect against attacks from wild animals and other enemies. Moreover, the drum beating was done in case any announcement had to be made by the King or the government. The drum-beating is a very old tradition in Kashmir. "When fasting began in Kashmir, people had to be woken up and drum-beating was seen as the best means, hence the term Sahar Khwan was coined for the people who did this job," says Prof. Ashraf.
Sahar Khawans gradually gain experience and adapt to the circumstances. This enables them to perform their duty flawlessly. "I've been doing this job since my childhood. This is what I've been doing all my life", says Wani. Wani's son Umar also works with him. The father-son duo performs their duties in this remote village of Beerwah. While Wani was interested in music and drum-beating, his son got inspired by the noble work of his father. "He beats the drum magically and better than me. He has become a master of drum-beating. I feel so happy," says Wani pointing towards his son. A Sahar Khawan uses a drum which costs somewhere between Rs 8000 to Rs 10,000. "I purchased this drum for Rs 10, 000," says Wali Muhammad. In earlier times, a Sahar Khwan had to get a drum on rent for Rs 50 to 60 a month. Today, it costs around Rs 2000 to get a drum on rent for a month.
Most of the Sahar Khawans say a particular thing they repeatedly shout while moving on the streets at night."Waqt-e-Sahar, Tani gov pahar, yena assi kheow," shouts Wali Muhammad repeatedly while moving on the streets everyday at the time of Sehri. Others have their own way of shouting and calling out people to wake up for fast.
At the end of a month of fasting, in return for their month-long services, Sahar Khwans are given some money and other non-monetary things in the form of rice, clothes, etc by the households they caters to in the neighborhoods. A Sahar Khawan who works in cities earns around Rs 8000 to 10,000, while as those who work in villages earn not more than Rs 4000. At the end of Ramadan, they visit every household and most of them give them money and other things. However, they don't compel people to pay for their services. "We go to each household to collect money that they're ready to give happily," says Ashraf. "We don't force anybody."
Ramadan being the month of rewards and blessings, the Sahar Khwans also receive their share of rewards in this holy month. "I am a poor peasant. I serve people and earn some money out of it," says Wali Muhammad. "I wish Ramadan came thrice a year or even more often."
A worker is sure of his salary at the end of a month, but a Sahar Khwan is not. The life of a Sahar Khwan is a life of principles, discipline, service to mankind and service to Allah. He's in no way less professional and less respectable than a teacher or a doctor. A Sahar Khawan lives a noble life and does a noble job. He should be respected, recognized and appreciated. A Sahar Khawan is an important member of our society as he keeps our tradition alive.
"If you're going to write about us, write one more thing," Ghulam Muhammad Wani points out. "Write that this Sahar Khwan goes to every door to wake up the people, he watches them prepare Sehri – aromatic delicacies, colorful fruits and the best food, but he himself hardly eats any of them at Sehri."
(ABRAR UL MUSTAFA is an Izhar Wani internee in GK)