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Title: Nuristanis  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Kunar Province, Hephthalite Empire, Apracaraja Indravarman's Silver Reliquary, Pashayi people, Taxation in Afghanistan
Collection: Nuristani People
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Kautiak villagers in Nuristan province with U.S. Navy Cmdr. (right)
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
Related ethnic groups

The Nuristanis are an Indo-Iranian-speaking ethnic group native to the Nuristan region of eastern Afghanistan and some villages in the Chitral District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.[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 (then known as Kafiristan) 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 an Indo-Iranian polytheistic Rigvedic religion. Non-Muslim religious practices endure 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 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.[10][11]Nuristan has also received abundance of settlers from the surrounding Afghanistan regions due to the borderline vacant location.[12][13]


  • Pre-Islamic religion 1
  • History 2
    • Soviet war in Afghanistan 2.1
  • Genetics 3
  • Tribes 4
  • In popular culture 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Pre-Islamic religion

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".[14]
They acknowledged a number of human-like deities who lived in the unseen Deity World (Kâmviri d'e lu; cf. Sanskrit deva lok'a-).[14]

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[14] There is a creator god, appearing under various names, as lord of the nether world and of heaven: Yama Rājan, or Māra ('death', Nuristani),[15] 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 vedic religion.


Nuristanis are first mentioned in the Rigveda, the collection of ancient Vedic Sanskrit hymns sacred to Hindus. In the Rigveda, they appear as Alinas, and fought on the side of the sage Vishvamitra in the Battle of the Ten Kings.

Specifically, the Rigveda describes the victory of the Bharatas over Vishvamitra's Puru regiment and its Nuristani, Pashtun, Balochi, Kashmiri, and Bhrigus allies.

Rigveda 7.18.7 says

Together came the Pakthas, the Bhalanas, the Alinas, the Sivas, the Visanins. Yet to the Trtsus came the Ārya's Comrade, through love of spoil and heroes' war, to lead them[16]
  • Alinas: One of the tribes defeated by Sudas at the Dasarajna,[17] and it was suggested that they lived to the north-east of Nuristan, because the land was mentioned by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang.[18]

Like certain other groups in the region, they sometimes exhibit physical characteristics of light hair, eyes, and skin. There is a large number of these people who live in Chitral, Pakistan the eastern border of Nuristan. 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).

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.[19]

Nuristanis were formerly classified into "Siah-Posh (black-robed) Kafirs" and "Safed-Posh (white-robed)/Lall-Posh (Red-Robed) Kafirs".[20] Timur fought with and was humbled by the Siah-Posh Kafirs.[21] Babur advised not to tangle with them. Genghis Khan passed by them. In the 19th century, it was typical of the Kafirs to boast about having killed the sons of Ali.[22]

The region is so called "Kafiristan" as the surrounding populations were converted to Islam, the people in this region retained themselves, thus known as "Kafirs".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. The "Kafir" here is used to refer to their being non-Muslims and the Nurestan province was hence known as Kafiristan, before the majority were converted to Islam during Abdur Rahman Khan's rule around 1895. They are now known as Nuristani. However, they have retained some of their old customs and traces of their previous beliefs, which is considered incompatible with the new belief and is disappearing.[23]

"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 to have changed to Kapir and then Kafir,[24][25][26][27] because of the lack of 'p' in Arabic. This is similar to how Parsi changed to Farsi.

Soviet war in Afghanistan

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 successfully revolt against the communist overthrow of their government 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.[2].

A Nuristani girl


Approximately 60% of Nuristanis carry Y-DNA Haplogroup R1a (Haber et. al 2012). Haplogroup L3a (PK3) is found at high levels – approximately 23% – of Nuristani males.[28]

L3a is also found found frequently among Burusho (approximately 12%) and Pashtuns (approx. 7%), and is distributed at a moderate level throughout the general population of Pakistan (at a rate of approx. 2%).[28] Its highest frequency can be found in south western Balochistan province along the Makran coast (28%) to Indus River delta.


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

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

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Afghanistan - Nuristani". 
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Kalash Religion" (PDF). 
  4. ^ "Wlodek Witek (CHArt 2001)". 
  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. ^ Hauner , M. (1991). The soviet war in afghanistan. United Press of America.
  11. ^ Ballard, Lamm, Wood. (2012). From kabul to baghdad and back: The u.s. at war in afghanistan and iraq .
  12. ^
  13. ^$file/Land_disputes_NRC_june04.pdf
  14. ^ a b c Richard F. Strand (31 December 2005). "Richard Strand's Nuristân Site: Peoples and Languages of Nuristan". 
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Rig Veda: Rig-Veda, Book 7: HYMN XVIII. Indra.". 
  17. ^ Macdonell, A. A. and Keith, A. B. (1912). Vedic Index of Names and Subjects, I, 39.
  18. ^ Macdonell and Keith, Vedic Index, 1912, I, 39.
  19. ^ The political and statistical history of Gujarát By ʻAlī Muḥammad Khān, James Bird PAGE 29
  20. ^ The Gates of India, p 270, Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich
  21. ^ Tuzak-i-Timuri, pp 401–08; The History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol VI, 1977, p 117, Dr Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, Achut Dattatraya Pusalker, Asoke Kumar Majumdar
  22. ^ Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River, Alice Albinia, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010, p. 225
  23. ^ "Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture" (PDF). 
  24. ^ Geographical and Economic Studies in the Mahābhārata: Upāyana Parva, 1945, p 44, Dr Moti Chandra — India.
  25. ^ Census of India, 1961, p 26, published by India Office of the Registrar General.
  26. ^ See also: Kāṭhakasaṅkalanam: Saṃskr̥tagranthebhyaḥ saṅgr̥hītāni Kāṭhakabrāhmaṇa, Kāṭhakaśrautasūtra, 1981, p xii, Surya Kanta; cf: The Contemporary Review, Vol LXXII, July–Dec, 1897, p 869, A. Strahan (etc), London.
  27. ^ S. Levi states that Chinese Kipin is a rendering of an Indian word Kapir (See quote in: Geographical and Economic Studies in the Mahābhārata: Upāyana Parva, 1945, p 44, Moti Chandra — India; See also: Bhārata-kaumudī; Studies in Indology in Honour of Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerji, 1945, p 916, Radhakumud Mookerji — India).
  28. ^ a b Firasat, Sadaf; Khaliq, Shagufta; Mohyuddin, Aisha; Papaioannou, Myrto; Tyler-Smith, Chris; Underhill, Peter A; Ayub, Qasim (2006). "Y-chromosomal evidence for a limited Greek contribution to the Pathan population of Pakistan". European Journal of Human Genetics 15 (1): 121–6.  

External links

  • Nuristani Tribal Tree – US Naval Postgraduate School Note: this source has been evaluated as "totally unreliable" by the leading scholarly authorities on Nuristan.
  • Strand, Richard F. (1997). "Nuristan: Hidden Land of the Hindu Kush". 
  • Strand, Richard F. (2001). "Peoples and Languages of Nuristân". 
  • Strand, Richard F. (1999). "Lexicons of the Hindu-Kush". 
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