The digitized twenty-first century has bestowed almost everything upon the cell phone to the extent that it has replaced more than 50 things. While the Ramzan drummers were competing with the mosque loudspeakers, the mobile phone alarms have led to their decline in Kashmir villages and towns, reports Raashid Andrabi
Asked what he misses during Ramzan, the month of fasting, in comparison to his childhood, Ishfaq Ahmad, 50, a Ganderbal resident said, Waqt-e-Sehar. “There were drummers who used to wake people at Sehri and it was an interesting tradition that is no more around,” the resident said. “Now everybody has alarm bells at home.”
Muslims in Ramzan fast for a long day after having Sehri, the pre-dawn meal. They breakfast at Iftaar, the exact dusk when the Mouzin, the man who calls for prayers, invites the faithful to Magrib prayers from the mosque.
Getting people up from their beds when they are in deep slumber is a heady task. Various civilisations have had human alarms deployed to wake-up people early, mostly for work. It was a common sight in parts of industrial Britain till the alarm clocks were perfected and made cheap for commoners that knockers-up (also called knockers-uppers) were engaged in waking up people early for pre-dawn shifts in the factories.
These knocker-ups would use batons or short, heavy bamboo sticks to reach windows on higher floors. Some would use pea-shooter or snuffer outers to make people get up from their beds. These people were either hired by the factories or the workers would pay from their own earnings.
Following the Muazin
However, Islam’s knockers-up preceded the industrial revolution. Muslim historians see Bilal-e-Habshi, actually Bilal bin Rabah, Islam’s first Muazin, as the first-ever Mesaharthi, an Arabic word meaning the person who wakes up people during early hours.
Apart from calling Azaan, Bilal would be accompanied by Ibn Umm Maktoum to wake up people for Sehri (actually Suhoor) in the month of fasting. Their exercise was informal.
Gradually it emerged as a voluntary exercise for people and by the time, the Fatimids started ruling, soldiers would wake up people at Sehri.
The Mesaharati origins, however, remain disputed.
“Historian Abdelmajid Abdul Aziz said mesaharati first appeared in Egypt during the Fatimid dynasty, arguably the most decorated period for Ramadan celebrations,” Saudi newspaper Arab News reported from Coiro. “According to 15th-century Egyptian historian Mohammed bin Iyas, the profession began in the days of the Caliph Bi’amr Allah, who commanded citizens to sleep immediately after the Taraweeh prayer.”
The Caliph, the newspaper said would then send out his soldiers in the early hours, knocking on doors and shouting before dawn prayers began, to wake people for suhoor.
“Abdul Aziz said that the Egyptian Governor Ibn Ishaq was the first to individually perform the task professionally in 832 AH (1432 CE). He would walk from the city of Fustat to the mosque at Amr ibn Al-Aas, and call out “O worshipers of Allah, eat. Suhoor is a blessing.” Fustat was the capital of Egypt during the Fatamid period.
In certain societies, the rulers would use cannons at Sehri and Iftaar time.
The mesaharati’s use different tools to wake the people from their slumber. Mostly they use a drum because it has a louder voice. In Egypt, they use Baza, a tumbakhnari-style small drum.
In various other parts of the Muslim world, diverse musical instruments are used. It is a flute in certain areas but mostly it is a different form of drum. In various societies, certain families are working as mesaharati’s for generations on a voluntary basis. Dalal Abdel Kader, an Egyptian female mehsaharati’s was asked why she is doing it when alarm clocks do it better, she said: “The mesaharati reminds you that it’s Ramadan and people love this.”
The Sehr Khwans
Given the fact that Islam came to Kashmir through Central Asia, it brought with it cultural influences. In Kashmir and most of South Asia, the Ramzan drummers are called Sehr Khwan. It is Persian which means a person who recites at Sehr. Quran Khwan is the person who recites the Quran.
There are no records of the Kashmiri mesaharati’s. However, it is being said that earlier groups of men would move around streets, reciting the Quran in high-pitch. Later, they started using drums and gong bells.
Unlike towns, the responsibility of waking people would be with a well-to-family that could own a bell and had the means of knowing the exact timing. While Kashmir has used the erstwhile Radio Kashmir Srinagar’s evening broadcast to have Iftaar, the Sehri timing, however, was to be managed locally without any radio support.
Loudspeakers came as a huge relief as one person would somehow reach the mosque and make the announcement. Even today, the mosque continues to be a contributor in getting up people for pre-dawn meals and announcing the breakfast as well.
With the arrival of the cell phone, however, the mesaharatis have started disappearing from the streets. It is as true for Sudan as it is for Kashmir. A lot of people rely on alarm clocks to wake up early for Sehri.
In Kashmir, villages have technically given up the Sehar Khwan tradition. They use the mosque loudspeakers instead, in addition to the alarm clocks. Conflict and militancy played a key role in undoing the tradition in villages. The impact of conflict on this job can be gauged by the fact that some of the Ramzan drummers wake up and beat the drum within their own home premises and not moving around. It is only the major towns and the city where the tradition survives.
In 2018, it was a Sikh who became the news for being the Sehr Khwan in a Pulwama village. It was in fact a video that went viral and fetched him praise for the communal harmony. He used to say: “Allah Rasool de pyaaro, jannat de talabgaro, utho roza rakho (The beloved of Allah and his messenger, the seekers of paradise, wake up to start your fast).
The Srinagar City may have the highest number of active mesaharatis. Mostly equipped with drums, they recite hymens and ask people to get up and have sehri. Usually, they roam the streets almost an hour ahead of the Sehri time.
Most of these sehr khawns are non-natives, mostly from the north Kashmir periphery. Some of them are already working in Srinagar as mosque managers or doing other jobs. A few of them actually move to Srinagar for the month to operate as the sehr khwan because it fetches a good income.
“I have been working as Sehr Khawn for many years now,” Wali Mohammad, who operates in an uptown locality of Srinagar, said. “I live in the locality and I already work within the locality including managing the Hamams of people and other things.”
Most of Srinagar’s localities have their own mesaharati. Though most of them are professionals, a few of them say they are doing it as part of their spiritual well-being.
In anticipation of Eid, these mesaharati’s picked up their drum and move from one house to another, getting blessings and money. People usually liberally try to compensate them because they know they are more than the push button alarms. There have been cases when the localities were on fast without Sehri as Sehr Khawn was indisposed and overslept.