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  India   All India  20 Jun 2017  Ramzan in Kashmir: A time to carry age-old traditions forward

Ramzan in Kashmir: A time to carry age-old traditions forward

Published : Jun 20, 2017, 3:24 am IST
Updated : Jun 20, 2017, 3:24 am IST

While keeping old practices alive, Kashmiris also embrace change.

A couple of hours ahead of the pre-dawn meal, suhor, eaten before the start of prayer, people called Sehar Khawans walk though dark streets beating drums and shouting “Wakhta-e-Sehar (It is time to wake up for suhor)”. (Photo: Asian Age)
 A couple of hours ahead of the pre-dawn meal, suhor, eaten before the start of prayer, people called Sehar Khawans walk though dark streets beating drums and shouting “Wakhta-e-Sehar (It is time to wake up for suhor)”. (Photo: Asian Age)

Srinagar: Celebrations and community iftars and prayers galore as Ramzan is observed in Kashmir. Significantly, the people who become part of the activity associated with the fasting month not only preserve the traditions but also try to take them forward.

Before beginning the day-long fast, the faithful prefer to take traditional food and beverages in Sehri’ or Suhor, the pre-dawn meal eaten before the Fajr prayer (the first of the five daily prayers). These include a plate or toor (bowl) of plain white rice and mutton or vegetable curry or both with yoghurt and pickles. The most favourite brewage which is served before the dawn breaks up is Kashmiri nun chai (pink salt tea) with fresh plain or ghee soaked bread bought from the bakery.

The course is repeated at iftar when Muslims end their daily Ramazan fast at sunset. But most of the people prefer to break the fast by taking a couple of dates and there are many varieties of the fruit, including those imported from West Asia, is available in the market. Traditionally, dates are known as the food Prophet Muhammad ate when he broke his fast.

However, with changing lifestyles and economic prosperity, “dastar khawan”, the tablecloth that serves as traditional space where food is eaten, has now on it also fruit juices, cutlets, fried snacks and much more in many Kashmiri homes. The Iftar menu at mosques and other community gatherings has become more varied and tangy. Yet, for an average resident, fereni, the Persian pudding dessert which is served cold, is the best affordable substitute for these. In the evenings, mosques are filled with devotees to offer Taraweh, the special Ramzan prayers which are offered in pairs of two after Isha namaz or the fifth and last prayer of the day and can be prayed in, at least, eight or twenty raka’at, according to the Hanafi and Shafi’i schools of Sunni Islam. A break is taken after every 4(2+2) raka’at.

Though being a predominantly Muslim region, Kashmir remains a confluence of many cultures, religions and ethnic groups, a place where a rich and rare tapestry of civilisations has been woven over the years. While most traditions of the Ramzan fast and the Iftar meal continue, one that has had to adapt in the restive Valley is that of the “Sehar Khawani” or “Suhor Khawani”. A couple of hours before Sehri, Sehar Khawans walk though dark alleys and streets beating drums and shouting “Wakhta-e-Sehar (It is time to wake up for suhor).”

Sehar Khawans are mainly labourers or impecunious people from rural Kashmir who move to Srinagar and other major towns to take up the self-appointed job. Previously, a Sehar Khawan used to loudly recite verses from the Quran, Na’at or praise for the Prophet Muhammad and other speeches explaining the importance of fasting. He would be in traditional Kashmiri attire and besides beating a drum might blow a sheep horn pipe, the practice called “nalla-e-hyder.” Since few in a locality owned a watch or alarm clock, the Sehar Khawans were in great demand during Ramzan.

But with security forces present in almost every nook and corner of the Valley today, the Sehar Khawans move from one locality to the other under the shadow of guns to serve the people. Yet for the most part, the security forces are aware of the Ramzan tradition and do not trouble them, said Mushtaq Ahmed Sheikh, who performs his Sehar Khawani obligation in Gaw Kadal area of Srinagar.

He is among very few in the tribe who still use a sheep horn pipe which, he claims, was brought to Kashmir by his grandfather — himself a Sehar Khawan — from Karachi in pre-Partition days.

Many people who work as chowkidars or watchmen or as hammamis (men hired during winter to warm up traditional corral in a mosque’s bathrooms) also act as Sehar Kawans “not just to earn their livelihood but also to serve Islam and the people.” Others are mainly those who migrate to Srinagar and other towns during Ramzan to take up the job. The residents do not allow the work of the Sehar Khawans to go unrewarded. In fact, at a time when vast majority of Kashmir’s Muslims own alarm clocks and watches, and when even mobile phones have alarms, it is mainly because residents allow the tradition to continue that Sehar Khawans have work at all.

A couple of days before Id-ul Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramzan, each Sehar Khawan visits each house in the locality he may have served to receive offerings of cash or rice, fresh and dry fruits and vegetables, and pulses. Some women even “dedicate” their precious belongings, including jewellery, for a Sehar Khawan. The well-off give them gifts such as kamiz-salwar suits and pairs of shoes.

Tags: ramzan, prophet muhammad, sehar khawans
Location: India, Jammu and Kashmir, Srinagar