Peoples and Languages of Nuristân


Name: nuristâni, designating a person from nuristân (properly, in Dari, nurestân or nûristân) 'Land of Light', the official Afghân Fârsi (Dari) name of the region since it was conquered, Islamized, and incorporated into the Afghân state during 1895-96. Before the conquest the region was known to outsiders as kâfiristân 'Land of the Infidels', and its people were contemptuously designated kâfir 'infidel' by the surrounding Muslim population. Because this term is deeply insulting to today's devoutly Muslim Nuristânis, neither kâfir, kâfiristân, nor kâfiri should be used to refer to the region or its peoples and languages.

Other Names: šex (from Arabic šaix 'elder, sheik'), the common designation used by neighboring Afghans and Chitralis to imply the recent-convert status of Nuristânis to Islâm. This term is considered pejorative by Nuristânis.

Location: the southern slopes of the Hindu-Kush mountains in northeastern Afghânistân, encompassing the watersheds of the upper Alingâr (Laghmân) River in western Nuristân, the upper Pech River in central Nuristân, and the Lanḍai Sin and Kunar Rivers in eastern Nuristân. As a result of the Afghân conquest, a few Nuristâni refugee communities became permanently established in pockets along the Afghânistân border in Chitral District, Pâkistân.

Population: between 100,000 – 150,000 for all ethnic groups. The Government of Afghânistân's official estimate of population for Nuristân Province (2009) is 134,100.

Languages and Ethnic Groups: There are five languages spoken by some fifteen ethnic groups in Nuristân:

On the basis of shared features, the former two languages form a Northern Nuristâni language cluster, opposed to a Southern Nuristâni cluster consisting of the latter three languages. However, there is much overlapping of dialect traits.

Nurestân Province: In 2002 the Interim Government of Afghanistan created a separate province for the Nuristânis, building on a plan first proposed during the Afghân Communist regime. Previously, Nuristân was divided between the provinces of Laghmân and Kunar, and the Nuristânis were administered by often unsympathetic Afghân bureaucrats located in the capitals and administrative-district centers of those provinces. The province of Nurestân is currently administered by Nuristânis, who have the difficult task of making their fledgling province viable within Afghânistân's socioeconomic fabric.

Nurestân Province contains six administrative districts (woluswâlis), whose borders were drawn to reflect major tribal boundaries. In fact, provincial and district boundaries as drawn on current semi-official maps do not reflect proper tribal boundaries in many places. The most egregious errors are along the province's southern border, where lands owned by the Kalasha and Kom Nuristânis are excluded from Nurestân Province and placed within the borders of Kunar Province. These errors have already resulted in needless jurisdictional disputes between Nuristânis and neighboring Afghâns and Kohistânis, and they are seen by Nuristânis as a ploy to expropriate their ancient tribal lands.

Linguistic Position of the Nuristâni Languages: Nuristânis constitute a linguistic group as well as a geographic one. Within the Indo-European linguistic family the Nuristâni languages form a third sub-group of the Indo-Iranian group, alongside the Iranian and Indo-Âryan sub-groups. Speakers of the precursors of the Nuristâni languages appear to have been on the outer edge of the wave of Âryan expansion that placed the Iranian-speaking peoples in their present locations. These proto-Nuristânis participated in most of the processes that differentiated the speech of the early Âryas (Indo-Iranians) from that of other Indo-Europeans, but they did not participate with the Âryas in the backing of ancient *s after *u. They later assimilated the strongly fronted accent of the Iranian speakers, which precluded the whispery-voicing of the earlier consonants *bh, *dh, and *gh, and they adopted the characteristic Iranian dentalizing of ancient palatalized *k and *g to *ć and *ź. But they did not participate in the later spirantizing and deaffrication processes that characterize the consonant systems of the recorded Iranian languages. Having been initially out of range of the Indo-Âryan side of the Âryan expansion, the proto-Nuristânis subsequently entered the Indo-Âryan sphere and participated in many of the Middle Indo-Âryan changes that characterize the Northwestern Indo-Âryan languages, such as the loss of intervocalic stop consonants and the simplification of intervocalic consonant clusters. In the millennium since the Nuristânis entered Nuristân, those in northern Nuristân have assimilated processes from the neighboring Iranian languages across the Hindu Kush, while those in southern Nuristân have remained closer to the Indo-Âryan languages to the south (see the linguistic map). Since the Afghân conquest of Nuristân, Nuristânis have been assimilating thousands of "Islamic" words of Arab and Persian origin into their lexicons, to the detriment of many ancient traditional terms. Further details appear here

History: Earlier investigators surmised that the ancestors of the Nuristânis were the first Indo-Europeans to enter the region of the Hindu Kush from Central Asia, and as later Indo-Âryas followed, the early Nuristânis were gradually pushed back into their present homes.1  These investigators were unaware of the oral traditions of most Nuristâni groups that placed them around the region of Kâma, at the northeast side of the confluence of the Kâbul and Kunar Rivers, until a thousand years ago.2  According to such traditions, they came from Kandahâr to Kâbul to Kâpisa to Kâma, being pushed by the onslaught of Islâm. Such accounts agree with the linguistic scenario sketched above, which posits that the Nuristânis were earlier on the edge of the Iranian-speaking world and only later encountered the Indo-Âryan sphere of influence. By their own account the Nuristânis were late arrivals in the region.

Around a thousand years ago Mahmud of Ghazni imposed his Islâmic Turkish empire throughout the Kâbul River Valley and forced the unsubmissive population to flee into the hinterlands of the surrounding mountains. The Nuristânis fled Kâma and eventually took refuge in the sparsely inhabited interior of the upper Pech and Laghmân Valleys in the Hindu-Kush Range.3  In their flight they passed over the lands of most of the Indo-Âryan peoples of the lower valleys of the Hindu Kush, but they did displace the earlier Jâša and Gahwâr inhabitants from the interior Pech Basin, driving them toward the east.

Since their occupation of the Hindu Kush, the various Nuristâni peoples have often maintained hostile relations. The difficult terrain of the Hindu Kush left minimal ecological resources for the different Nuristâni communities, which vied for agricultural and grazing land. Livestock rustling and ensuing violence became endemic. A clan's defense depended on retaliation in kind for any aggression against its members, but enmity could be stopped through proper compensation negotiated by neutral mediators. Within a community mediators always stepped in to quell potential violence; but in the absence of acceptable mediators, as was often the case between disputants of different ethnic groups, blood feuds could go on indefinitely.

In the wake of Mahmud's depredation came the Afghâns, who in the ensuing centuries expropriated the region's lowlands from their Indo-Âryan inhabitants. Population shifts in Laghmân, perhaps caused by the Tarkâṇi Afghân invasion in the mid 15th Century A.D., propelled other groups eastward into the Pech basin to become in part the ancestors of the Kalaṣa Nuristânis of today.

As Afghâns encroached on the region, relations between them and the Nuristânis grew more hostile. From the Nuristânis' viewpoint, they were surrounded by hostile peoples, bent on converting them to Islâm through force. Numerous holy-war expeditions against the "Kâfirs" (including the unconverted Indo-Âryan-speaking peoples of the region) were mounted by regional Muslim rulers, including those of Timur-e Lang (Tamerlane) in 1398 A.D. (Frazer-Tytler 1967: 58), Bâbur in the early 1500's, Akbar in the late 1500's, and Jahângir in the early 1600's (Kakar 1971: 186-87). The Nuristânis' response to such intolerant hostility was hundreds of years of incessant murderous raids on the lowland Afghân population, in compliance with their custom of blood revenge.

At the end of the 19th Century A.D. pressure on the Nuristânis mounted as they became pawns in the imperialist "Great Game" between Great Britain, Russia, and the Afghân Âmir ("Commander") Abdur-Rahmân Khân. Many Nuristânis voluntarily submitted to Islâm and agreed to pay tribute to the Âmir in order to prevent war, but he required total submission and spurned their offers of peace (Kakar 1971: 181 ff.). After he and the British agreed on a boundary (the "Durand Line") beyond which neither would advance, he had license to annex the independent polities east of his current empire up to the line, including those of present-day Nuristân. He mounted campaigns up the Laghmân and Kunar Valleys in 1895, and succeeded in overcoming all the "Kâfirs" by the end of 1896 (Kakar 1971: 197-200).4  His troops destroyed and plundered most of the temples and religious idols, and they compelled the men to submit to circumcision as a sign of their submission to Allâh. Thousands of Nuristânis from Laghmân were deported to other provinces of the Âmir's empire and only later allowed to return, but in general the conquered Nuristânis were treated well. Many deportees were inducted into the army, establishing an enduring tradition of integrating Nuristânis into national life through governmental service. Governmental mullahs were sent to educate the new converts in the requirements of their new God, and after two generations the populace was thoroughly Islamized.

The Afghân government interdicted the Nuristânis' endemic hostilities, and with a few notable exceptions Nuristân under the Afghâns has remained peaceful. At times of little or no control from Kâbul intertribal wars did flare up, as between the Kom and Kṣto during the interregnum in 1929 and again under the Tâlibân in 1998. During the revolt of the neighboring Sâfi Afghâns in 1949, the Kalaṣa sided with the government against their Sâfi foes. During the last century the gradual influx of highland Gujar and Mïšwâṇi tribes into the pasturelands of the Kom and Kalaṣa spawned sporadic hostilities, which escalated in the late 1960's (Strand 1978).

Most significantly for today's geopolitics, the Nuristânis of the Lanḍai Sin broke the peace five months after the Communist coup of April 27, 1978, and started the first undefeated resistance against the communist government. Their valiant early defense of their homeland, documented here and in Strand 1984a, would escalate into the eventual overthrow of the Communist regime in Afghânistân and lead to the unforeseen hegemony of the now defunct Tâlibân regime.

Pre-Islâmic Religion: Before their conversion to Islâm the Nuristânis practiced a form of ancient Hinduism, infused with accretions developed locally. They acknowledged a number of human-like deities who lived in the unseen Deity World (Kâmviri d'e lu; cf. Sanskrit deva lok'a-). Certain deities were revered only in one community or tribe, but one was universally revered as the Creator: the ancient Hindu god Yama Râja, called imr'o in Kâmviri. The deities guided peoples' destinies and could be influenced through sacrifice, prayer, and dance. Supplicants communicated with the deities through shamans, who would go into a trance after the area was purified with juniper smoke to invite the deities' presence. Such communication often resulted in the disclosure of a transgression of purity against a diety, who demanded a sacrifice of livestock in appeasement. Some details of the former religion, as practiced by the Vasi, appear here.


1. E.g., "the remarkable archaisms of Kaf. [Nuristâni] and its geographical position render it probable that it contains a residuum going back to the language of tribes which split off from the main body of the Aryans and penetrated into the Indian borderland before the invasion of the Indo-Aryans. These later arrivals either assimilated the Kafirs [Nuristânis], or pushed them back into the inaccessible mountain strongholds of Kafiristan." (Morgenstierne 1945a:  231).

2. The following links point to accounts of ethnic movements from Kâma from the native perspectives of Kom, Vâsi, and Vâi authorities.

3. I have heard local accounts that within the population of the Mangal region of the Spin Ghar (in Persian, the Safêd Kôh 'White Mountains') southwest of Kâma there are remnants of refugees from Kâma, and that there are still people in Kâma who recognize that the Nuristânis are their distant kin who refused to submit to Islâm.

4. The subjugation of Nuristân as seen through the eyes of British intelligence is fully covered by Jones (1969) and Kakar (1971). We cannot expect the British accounts, based on paid Nuristâni informers, to always reflect reality, as the game of information management has always been well understood in Nuristân. An eyewitness account of the conquest, by Dümü Sunmři Merak of Kombřom, will appear on this website.