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Total population
ca. 125,000–300,000[1][2]
Regions with significant populations
Nuristan Province
Nuristani languages,
Dari and Pashto also understood widely as second languages
Sunni Islam, syncretized forms of the Kalash religion
Related ethnic groups
Kautiak villagers in Nuristan province with U.S. Navy commander (right)

The Nuristanis are an ethnic group native to the Nuristan region of eastern Afghanistan, who speak Indo-Iranian languages, including Nuristani.[3] In the mid-1890s, after the establishment of the Durand Line when Afghanistan ceded various frontier areas to the British Empire, Emir Abdur Rahman Khan conducted a military campaign in Nuristan and followed up his conquest with conversion of the Nuristanis to Islam;[4][5] the region thenceforth being known as Nuristan, the "Land of Light".[6][7][8][9] Before their conversion, the Nuristanis (then known as "Kafiristanis") practiced a form of ancient Hinduism.[10][11][12] Non-Muslim religious practices endure in Nuristan today to some degree as folk customs. In their native rural areas, they are often farmers, herders, and dairymen.

The Nuristanis are distinguished from the Kalash and a segment of the Kho people of Chitral by their adoption of Islam, territory within Afghanistan, and consolidation with other Afghans. The Nuristan region has been a prominent location for war scenes that have led to the death of many indigenous Nuristanis.[13][14] Nuristan has also received abundance of settlers from the surrounding Afghanistan regions due to the borderline vacant location.[15][16]

Pre-Islamic religion[edit]

Noted linguist Richard Strand, an authority on Hindu Kush languages, observed the following about pre-Islamic Nuristani religion:

"Before their conversion to Islâm the Nuristânis practiced a form of ancient Hinduism, infused with accretions developed locally".[17]

They acknowledged a number of human-like deities who lived in the unseen Deity World (Kâmviri d'e lu; cf. Sanskrit deva lok'a-).[17]

Certain deities were revered only in one community or tribe, but one was universally revered as the creator: the Hindu god Yama Râja called imr'o in Kâmviri.[17] There is a creator god, appearing under various names, as lord of the nether world and of heaven: Yama Rājan, or Māra ('death', Nuristani),[18] or Dezau (ḍezáw) whose name is derived from Indo-European *dheig'h i.e. "to form" (Kati Nuristani dez "to create", CDIAL 14621); Dezauhe is also called by the Pashto term Khodai. There are a number of other deities, semi-gods and spirits. The Kalash pantheon is thus one of the few living representatives of Indo-European religion.

The Kafirs believed in many deities, whose names resembled those of Iranian and old Vedic sources. There was a supreme deity named Mara or Imra, plus a multitude of lesser gods and goddesses known locally as Mandi or Moni, Wushum or Shomde, Gish or Giwish, Bagisht, Indr, Züzum, Disani, Kshumai or Kime etc.

Each village and each clan had its guardian deity, with shamans advising the help-seekers and priests presiding at religious services. The cult centered on the sacrifice of animals, mostly goats.[19]


Map of Alexander's empire and his military route, showing modern-day areas of Kalash Valley, Nuristan, Hunza Valley, and Gilgit Valley were occupied by Alexander

Like certain other groups in the region, they sometimes exhibit physical characteristics of light hair, eyes, and skin. Most of these people are from the Kata Family and Janaderi Branch. However, there are other Nuristani tribes as well, some of the Kata of Janaderi people live in Ozhor (now Karimabad), Gobor, Buburat, Ayun, Broze and Mastuj. There is a very popular rock associated with this tribe located in Karimabad (Juwara) called kata bont (Kata is the name of the tribe; bont meaning "stone" in the Chitrali language).

The area extending from modern Nooristan to Kashmir was known as "Peristan", a vast area containing host of "Kafir" cultures and Indo-European languages that became Islamized over a long period. Earlier, it was surrounded by Buddhist states and societies which temporarily extended literacy and state rule to the region. The journey to the region was perilious according to reports of Chinese pilgrims Fa-hsien and Sung Yun. The decline of Buddhism resulted in the region becoming heavy isolated. The Islamization of the nearby Badakhshan began in 8th century and Peristan was completely surrounded by Muslim states in the 16th century. The Kalasha people of lower Chitral are the last surviving heirs of the area.[20]

In 4th century BC, Alexander the Great encountered them and reduced them after a stubborn and prolonged fight, describing them as being distinct culturally and religiously from other peoples of the region.[1]

In 1014 CE, Mahmud of Ghazni attacked them:

Another crusade against idolatry was at length resolved on; and Mahmud led the seventh one against Nardain, the then boundary of India, or the eastern part of the Hindu Kush; separating as Firishta says, the countries of Hindustan and Turkistan and remarkable for its excellent fruit. The country into which the army of Ghazni marched appears to have been the same as that now called Kafirstan, where the inhabitants were and still are, idolaters and are named the Siah-Posh, or black-vested by the Muslims of later times. In Nardain there was a temple, which the army of Ghazni destroyed; and brought from thence a stone covered with certain inscriptions, which were according to the Hindus, of great antiquity.[21]

Nuristanis were formerly classified into "Siah-Posh (black-robed) Kafirs" and "Safed-Posh (white-robed)/Lall-Posh (Red-Robed) Kafirs".[22] Timur fought with and was humbled by the Siah-Posh Kafirs.[23] Babur advised not to tangle with them. Genghis Khan passed by them.[citation needed] In the 19th century, it was typical of the Kafirs to boast about having killed the sons of Ali.[24]

The region is called "Kafiristan" because while the surrounding populations were converted to Islam, the people in this region retained their traditional religion, and were thus known as "Kafirs" to the Muslims. The Arabic word "Kufr" means not only to disbelieve, but also to blaspheme, and therefore, its derivative "Kafir" means one who commits blasphemy against Allah in the Islamic tradition. Thus "Kafir" here is used to refer to their being non-Muslims; the province was therefore known as Kafiristan. The majority were converted to Islam during Abdur Rahman Khan's rule around 1895. The province is now known as Nuristani, and the people as Nuristanis. However, among the rural population many old customs and beliefs like occasional production of wine and the avoidance of veils have continued and the people of these regions adhere to a syncretic form of Islam which is considered impure by the Wahhabist belief system of the Taliban who rule some areas of Nuristan Province today, and so is disappearing or being pushed underground in those areas.[25][26]

"Kafir" has also been traced to Kapiś (= Kapish), the ancient Sanskrit name of the region that included historic Kafiristan; which is also given as "Ki-pin" (or Ke-pin, Ka-pin, Chi-pin) in old Chinese chronicles. That name, unrelated to the Arabic word, is believed to have mutated at some point into the word Kapir. Kapiś, the name of the people of Kapiś/Kapiśa, is believed[who?] to have changed to Kapir and then Kafir,[27][28][29][30] because of the lack of 'p' in Arabic. This is similar to how Parsi changed to Farsi.

Soviet–Afghan War[edit]

General Issa Nuristani was second in command following the King during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Before his assassination, General Issa called the Nuristani people in a "Jihad" against the Soviet Army. The Nuristani people were among the first in Afghanistan to rise against the Soviet invasion. They played an important role in the conquering of some provinces, including Kunar, Nangarhar, Badakhshan, and Panshir. Following the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the Mawlavy Ghulam Rabani was declared as governor of the Kunar Province.

Most of the former Hindu Kush Kafir people are considered the ancestors of the Nuristanis. Led by the Koms tribe, the Nuristani were the first citizens of Afghanistan to revolt against the Communist takeover in 1978. Thereafter, Nuristan remained a scene of some of the bloodiest guerrilla fighting with the Soviet forces from 1979 through 1989. The Nuristanis inspired others to fight and contributed to the demise of the Afghan Communist regime in 1992.[31]

A Nuristani girl


In a 2012 research on five Nuristani samples, three were found to belong to Haplogroup R1a, with one each in R2a and J2a.[32]


Nuristan, in light green

The Nuristani do not have a formal tribal structure as the Pashtuns do, however they do designate themselves by the names of the local regions they are from.[1] In total, there are 35 such designations: five from the north-south valleys and 30 from the east-west valley.

Some of these tribes include:

  • Askunu
  • Dungulio
  • Gramsana
  • Jench (of Arnce village)
  • Kalasha
  • Kata
  • Kom
  • Kshto
  • Mumo
  • Sanu
  • Tregami
  • Vasi

In popular culture[edit]

Nuristanis were depicted as their pre-Islamic past the Kafiristanis, as one of peoples inhabiting Kafiristan in Rudyard Kipling's story called The Man Who Would Be King which was then made into a film. The story was published in 1888, eight years before Nuristan was conquered and converted to Islam by Emir Abdur Rahman Khan.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Afghanistan - Nuristani".
  2. ^ "Afghanistan population statistics". GeoHive. Retrieved 2016-06-04.
  3. ^ "Kalash Religion" (PDF).
  4. ^ "Wlodek Witek (CHArt 2001)". Archived from the original on 2011-07-21.
  5. ^ Persée : A Kafir goddess
  6. ^ Martin Ewans, Afghanistan: a short history of its people and politics, Harper Perennial, 2002, p.103
  7. ^ A Former Kafir Tells His 'Tragic Story'. Notes on the Kati Kafirs of Northern Bashgal (Afghanistan) / Max Klimburg, Eat and West, Vol. 58 – Nos. 1–4 (December 2008), pp. 391–402
  8. ^ Reflections of the Islamisation of Kafiristan in Oral Tradition / Georg Buddruss Journal of Asian Civilizations — Volume XXXI — Number 1-2 – 2008, Special Tribute Edition, pp. 16–35
  9. ^ 'The pacification of the country was completed by the wholly gratuitous conquest of a remote mountain people in the north-east, the non-Muslim Kalash of Kafiristan (Land of the Unbelievers), who were forcibly converted to Islam by the army. Their habitat was renamed Nuristan (Land of Light).' Angelo Rasanayagam, Afghanistan: A Modern History, I.B. Tauris, 2005, p.11
  10. ^ Minahan, James B. (10 February 2014). Ethnic Groups of North, East, and Central Asia: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 205. ISBN 9781610690188. Living in the high mountain valleys, the Nuristani retained their ancient culture and their religion, a form of ancient Hinduism with many customs and rituals developed locally. Certain deities were revered only by one tribe or community, but one deity was universally worshipped by all Nuristani as the Creator, the Hindu god Yama Raja, called imr'o or imra by the Nuristani tribes.
  11. ^ Barrington, Nicholas; Kendrick, Joseph T.; Schlagintweit, Reinhard (18 April 2006). A Passage to Nuristan: Exploring the Mysterious Afghan Hinterland. I.B. Tauris. p. 111. ISBN 9781845111755. Prominent sites include Hadda, near Jalalabad, but Buddhism never seems to have penetrated the remote valleys of Nuristan, where the people continued to practice an early form of polytheistic Hinduism.
  12. ^ Weiss, Mitch; Maurer, Kevin (31 December 2012). No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan. Berkley Caliber. p. 299. ISBN 9780425253403. Up until the late nineteenth century, many Nuristanis practiced a primitive form of Hinduism. It was the last area in Afghanistan to convert to Islam—and the conversion was accomplished by the sword.
  13. ^ Hauner , M. (1991). The soviet war in afghanistan. United Press of America.
  14. ^ Ballard, Lamm, Wood. (2012). From kabul to baghdad and back: The u.s. at war in afghanistan and iraq .
  15. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 29, 2013. Retrieved January 4, 2014.
  16. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 4, 2013. Retrieved October 2, 2013.
  17. ^ a b c Richard F. Strand (31 December 2005). "Richard Strand's Nuristân Site: Peoples and Languages of Nuristan".
  18. ^
  19. ^ Klimburg, M. "Nuristan". Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  20. ^ Alberto M. Cacopardo (2016). "Fence of Peristan - The Islamization of the "Kafirs" and Their Domestication". Archivio Per l'Antropologia e la Etnologia: 69, 77.
  21. ^ ʻAlī Muḥammad Khān, James Bird. The political and statistical history of Gujarát p. 29
  22. ^ Holdich, Sir Thomas Hungerford. The Gates of India p 270
  23. ^ Majumdar, Dr Ramesh Chandra; Pusalker, Achut Dattatraya; Majumdar, Asoke Kumar. "Tuzak-i-Timuri", in The History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol VI. 1977. p 117.
  24. ^ Albinia, Alice. Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River W. W. Norton & Company, 2010, p. 225
  25. ^ Thesiger, Wilfred (1957). "A Journey in Nuristan". The Geographical Journal. 123 (4): 457. doi:10.2307/1790347. JSTOR 1790347.
  26. ^ "Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture" (PDF).
  27. ^ Moti Chandra, Geographical and Economic Studies in the Mahābhārata: Upāyana Parva, 1945, p 44.
  28. ^ Census of India, 1961, p 26, published by India Office of the Registrar General.
  29. ^ See also: Surya Kanta, Kāṭhakasaṅkalanam: Saṃskr̥tagranthebhyaḥ saṅgr̥hītāni Kāṭhakabrāhmaṇa, Kāṭhakaśrautasūtra, 1981, p xii. Also A. Strahan (etc), in The Contemporary Review, Vol LXXII, July–Dec, 1897, p 869, London.
  30. ^ S. Levi states that "Chinese Kipin is a rendering of an Indian word Kapir." (See quote in Chandra, p 26. See also: Radhakumud Mookerji, Bhārata-kaumudī; Studies in Indology in Honour of Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerji, 1945, p 916).
  31. ^ "Richard Strand's Nuristan Site OLD LOCATION". Archived from the original on 2005-08-22. Retrieved 2016-06-04.
  32. ^ Haber, Marc; Platt, DE; Ashrafian Bonab, M; Youhanna, SC; Soria-Hernanz, DF; Martínez-Cruz, Begoña; Douaihy, Bouchra; Ghassibe-Sabbagh, Michella; Rafatpanah, Hoshang; Ghanbari, Mohsen; Whale, John; Balanovsky, Oleg; Wells, R. Spencer; Comas, David; Tyler-Smith, Chris; Zalloua, Pierre A.; et al. (2012). "Afghanistan's Ethnic Groups Share a Y-Chromosomal Heritage Structured by Historical Events". PLoS ONE. 7 (3): e34288. Bibcode:2012PLoSO...734288H. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034288. PMC 3314501. PMID 22470552.

External links[edit]