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.