The Nuristani people are just one among many ethnic groups living in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. Although the Nuristanis are entitled to Afghan citizenship, they live in relative isolation. Outside Afghanistan, few have heard of this minority group, and for those who might have heard their name, their way of life might still be a mystery. In this post, we’ll take a look at the culture, history, and context of the Nuristani people.
Life in the Nuristan Province
The Nuristan province is located in eastern Afghanistan, at the southern slopes of the Hindu Kush mountain range. It’s bordered on the south by the Laghman and Kunar provinces, on the north by the Badakhshan province, on the west by the Panjshir province, and on the east by Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The Nuristan Province has a population of 140.000 people, and its capital is Parun.
The region enjoys a moderate climate with reasonable precipitation levels, so it’s suitable for irrigated agriculture. However, its mountainous geography restricts extensive farming. As a result of the abundance of pastures and the inability to conduct extensive agriculture, the province’s population has inclined towards cattle breeding. Nuristan’s food production is mainly meant for subsistence and centers around cereal grains and dairy products from goats and cattle.
Culture and History of the Nuristani People
The origins of the Nuristani people can be set around the 4th century B.C. since some Nuristanis claim that they are descendants of the Greek occupying forces of Alexander the Great.
For many centuries, the Nuristanis lived in an autonomous State known as Kafiristan. After centuries as an independent fiefdom, the region is used to very marginal participation from the State. Several attempts have been made by the Afghan government to integrate Nuristanis since 1893, but the Nuristanis remain proud of their independence in the inaccessible highlands that they inhabit.
The region has a distinctive culture that differentiates it from the rest of Afghanistan, however, it is possible to establish many cultural differences between the province’s main three valleys.
Before their forced conversion to Islam in the mid-1890 by a military campaign conducted by King Abdul Rahman of Afghanistan, the Nuristanis practiced a form of ancient Hinduism named Kalash, infused with accretions developed locally. Because of their ancient beliefs and their resistance to adopting Islam, the region was given the contemptuous name of Kafiristan, “Land of the Infidels”.
The Nuristanis’ ancient rituals often involved shamanism and ritualistic animal sacrifices. Dancing (which often included the twirling of war axes) played an important ceremonial role in Nuristani religion during pre-Islamic times and it was believed that it could also help appease deities.
The Nuristani people have a clan organization with the village being the basic socio-political unit. The task of village leadership is assigned to men who can promote cohesiveness and act as mediators in conflicts with other tribes. Despite historical conflicts between tribes, the Nuristani culture praises those who can step between two people about to fight and force an agreement. Not attempting to prevent a conflict is seen as dishonorable.
The Nuristanis are known for their hospitality, and they will entertain guests in their homes. They often sit on stools around a fire and converse as a main socialization ritual. The guests are expected to give something to the host, in exchange for their hospitality. But this exchange shouldn’t be conducted explicitly, as this would be considered rude.
Nuristan is and has always been an impoverished region, so wealth plays an important role in establishing authority among the tribes, even more so than braveness. To be elected as a tribe leader (Jast) a man needs to conduct many feasts for the village, which can financially ruin any man aspiring to this position. It is popular for the Jast to speak publicly and with pride about how he has spent his fortune to achieve leadership.
Nuristanis have a class-based society, with free men being the 90% of the population, and “Bari” being an underprivileged 10% that has to do most of the manual work. Throughout the centuries, as a consequence of their occupation, the Bari have been able to develop very complex wood crafting techniques, which institutions such as UNESCO are praising as of incredible cultural value and trying to preserve.
Languages of the Nuristani
There are fifteen Nuristani tribes, speaking five Indo-Iranian languages, with many dialects among the different subgroups. These five languages are Vasi, Kamkata Viri, Askunu Viri, Kalasa, Vata, and Tregami.
The Nuristani languages have approximately 130,000 speakers in total. Despite the region’s linguistic diversity, it’s worth mentioning that, since Pashto is one of the two official languages of Afghanistan, with sixteen million speakers, for foreign researchers conducting ethnographic studies in the region, Pashto translation services may be the most useful to overcome language barriers.