SRINAGAR (Reuters) - As soldiers watch from a distance, men beating drums walk the pre-dawn streets of troubled Kashmir to wake up Muslims to eat sohour, the last meal before starting a day of Ramadan fasting.
A centuries old Muslim ritual of human alarm clocks beating drums and bells in the pitch-dark hours of Islam’s holiest month has returned to the strife-torn region.
With a decline in rebel violence the men, known as Sehar Khans, are among the few who venture out at night in Kashmir, where nighttime walkers run the risk of getting shot by nervous troops. Sehar means “dawn” in Kashmiri.
“I started the job this year, because I do believe that security has improved a lot,” 55-year-old drummer Abdul Khaliq Bhat told Reuters.
“I am doing it for Allah and, of course, for some additional money for Eid celebrations,” Bhat added, before starting to beat drums through a dark lane in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, which is dotted with security check posts and police bunkers.
“Wakhta-e-Sehar (time to get up),” he shouts, as people wake up and turn on lights in their homes.
Ramadan culminates in the Eid al-Fitr festival when people go to mosques for prayers and visit friends and family to exchange gifts and greetings.
That is also when people tip the drummers for the service they have provided during the fasting month.
Most of the human alarm clocks are poor but some faithful do the job to earn sawab, or heavenly reward, during the sacred month.
“The militancy has disappeared now, that is why I decided to resume this sacred family job. It gives us satisfaction and this is a way you can earn more sawab,” said another drummer, Mohammad Rafiq.
Simmering opposition to New Delhi’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, erupted into a violent revolt by Islamist militants in 1989. More than 47,000 people have been killed.
But a slow-moving peace process between India and Pakistan, which both claim the scenic Himalayan region in full but rule it in parts, has eased tension.
Now, as night falls, Srinagar no longer shuts down. Shops and restaurants which used to pull down the shutters before sunset stay open until late in the evening.
“It’s an amazing feeling, the return of the Sehar Khan is definitely a harbinger of permanent peace,” Kahlida Begum, a 60-year-old housewife said.
“Allah will answer our prayers.”