festival celebrations

Prayers, fasting and feasting in the Valley: How Kashmir celebrates Ramzan

From human alarm clocks to food festivals and night-long prayers, the holy month is an eventful time for Kashmiris.

In the wee hours of the morning, as the Valley is cloaked in darkness, its residents fast asleep, the sound of drums pierces the silence and a voice rings out in the air: “Waqhtey Sahar!” (It’s time for sahar).

These are the Sehar Khans – the human alarm clocks for residents of Kashmir – who roam the streets before daylight, beating their drums and diligently reminding Muslims in the Valley to wake up for their pre-dawn mean, or sahar, so that they can brace themselves for hours of fasting ahead during the holy month of Ramzan.

Ramzan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and begins with the sighting of the crescent moon, which, in the Valley, was June 7.

Sawm, or fasting, is one of the five pillars of Islam and is an integral part of Ramzan the world over. Muslims believe that the reward of every good deed is multiplied during this month, so Ramzan is also a time for prayer, charity, reflection and abstaining from bad thoughts and deeds.

Life in the Valley

Prayers, charity and food characterise the Muslim-dominated Valley for the month of Ramzan. The streets are lit up in festive colours and mosques reverberate with prayers.

After the pre-drawn meal, the air is filled with calls for prayers and scores of people fill up the mosques and shrines dotting the Valley’s landscape.

Then, it is business as usual for the working population – except that lunch hour becomes a time for noon prayers.

If someone disturbs the peace at work, everyone protests saying: “It is Ramzan. Let’s do this peacefully.”

In fact, “It is Ramzan” is a common refrain in the Valley – “it is Ramzan and you are making us wait?” or “How can you overcharge during Ramzan?” or “I do not want to fight, it's Ramzan."

Meal fit for a king

For Kashmiris who are fasting, iftar – the evening meal with which the Ramzan fast is broken – is a chance to feast on local delicacies such as Babribyol tresh (a drink made of basil seeds), firi’en (made of semolina and milk), qateer (a drink of tragacanth), custards, fruit juices, dates and dishes made with mutton and chicken.

To keep the table ready for iftar, residents start queuing up around noon outside the shops of the kandur, the local bread makers of Kashmir. The kandur take special orders – so visitors can get customised bread made with extra ghee, poppy and sesame seeds.

Street food vendors, conspicuous by their absence in the day, line the markets in the evening to offer food and water to passersby and there's a flurry of activity as people try to rush home to break their fasts with family or friends. Those stuck in transit at iftar time can rest assured that co-passengers or passersby will offer them dates or fruit so that they can symbolically break their fast.

Most mosques and shrines also spread sheets and lay out an inviting iftar meal – typically including a plate of fruits, dates and something to drink.

Keeping the Ramzan celebrations going into the night is a food festival at Kashmir Haat in Srinagar. The festival, organised by LoudBeetle, is an initiative by the ministry of culture to revive the nightlife in Kashmir and stalls of popular eating joints are in business from iftar to sahar.

Religion and charity

During Ramzan, Muslims offer five prayers through the day. The last prayer at night is called Isha. The grand mosque, or Jama Masjid, in downtown Srinagar sees a throng of visitors, particularly on Akhir Jumah, the last Friday of Ramzan, when people from all corners of the city come here to pray. The Hazratbal shrine on the banks of Dal Lake, which is believed to house a relic of Prophet Muhammad, is also popular.

Since charity is an integral part of this month, beggars often come knocking at houses in the Valley, seeking alms. Zakat and Sadqah are two forms of charity that are obligatory for all Muslims. Zakat, a pillar of Islam, is a fixed percentage of total wealth that a person of means needs to give to the poor, while Sadqah is voluntary charity.

Activity in the Valley peaks on Shab-i-Qadr, which is held on one of the odd-numbered nights (according to the Ramzan calendar) during the last 10 days of the holy month. Mosques are brightly lit and packed with visitors for night-long prayers. It is believed that the first verses of the Holy Quran were revealed to the Prophet on this night. Nowadays, Shab-i-Qadr is usually held on the 27th night of Ramzan.

Drawing the curtain on the auspicious month is the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr.

And what happens in Kashmir on Eid? That’s another story for another day.

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.