Kafiristan, the Pagan Province of Afghanistan and Chitral, it’s a close cousin. The province of Nuristan was known as Kafiristan, that is, the land of infidels, until 1895-96 when Amir Abdur Rahman occupied it and forcefully converted the occupants to Islam.
The province borders Pakistan’s Chitral district to the east which is home to the Hindu Kalash people who were the co-religionists of the kafirs. They are also referred to as ‘siah-posh’ kafirs meaning “the black robbed infidels”.
The people of Kafiristan were fiercely independent with a distinctive culture, language, and religion. Their religion is described as ‘Ancient Hinduism’. After the conquest, the Amir named the province Nuristan meaning the land of light/enlightenment.
Alexander Gardner was in Afghanistan between 1827-30 and visited Kafirstan. Gardner was hosted by an old Peer who belonged to the clan of Nimchu Kafirs, who were the descendants of mixed unions between Kafirs and Muslims and were found ‘all-round the borders of Kafiristan’. The Peer told him that Scythia was the original home of the Kafir race and claimed ‘one of the kings of the dynasty of Cyrus as their founder’. The Peer gave Gardner parting gifts which included a fine leopard-skin mantle with a matching cap, sixty gold tillahs (in a silk handkerchief), and a copy of the Koran. The Peer also provided a guide and along with him was a Hindu by the name of Jey Ram who was a man of ‘respectable appearance and well-armed’. Gardner adds that they appeared to have traveled much together. They were both well-educated men, and could read, write, and speak fluently Persian, Turkish, Pashto, and Arabic. Jey Ram also had ‘some colloquial knowledge of the languages of Kafiristan’ where he had traveled before with some other Hindus.
Jey Ram had also been to many places in Russia including Moscow. Gardner took a north-easterly direction through the Khojah Mahomed range and came to a pass called Kafir Ghesh Durrah. Here, he saw two large stone idols cut out of the solid rock. The idols were of Kafir deity Ghesh (the Earth) and his wife Dizane (the producer of all things). Mohan Lal in his account mentions a certain Mufti who had traveled to the country of Siah Posh Kafirs (black-robed infidels) and gave a brief account to Gerard. The Mufti from Jalalabad went to Kanur (now, Kunar) and then to Chaghul Sarai. He then passed through the valleys called Darrah Nur, Damanj, and Vakul. On the third day, the Mufti arrived at the village named Katar, occupied by the Siah Posh. Interestingly, a Hindu Temple (8th-9c) found at the exact same site. The temple once rose at Chiga Sarai in Kunar (the Afghan province bordering with Bajaur and Dir), known to us thanks to the drawings of its few remains reused in the local cemetery in the 19th century.
The horse was not known to them and the inhabitants were surprised ‘at some feats’ performed by the Mufti’s horse. The people were ‘masters of beauty and wore a dress made of goatskin and let their hair hang down the shoulders. They drank wine and always sat on chairs. They worshipped idols made of stone or wood and called them Baruk or Maha Dev. They wore iron rings in their ears and a string ornamented with shells round their necks. They sacrificed cows on their holidays and when asked where God is, they pointed their fingers towards the west (Mecca is towards the west). They read the ‘Kalimah’ to please Muslims but also confessed that they were Kafirs.
They did not intermarry among their relations and their weddings were unusual and different. ‘They bring their wives unveiled on their shoulders, dance, run, and jump in the streets like a jackass, as the Mufti said), accompanied by crowds of men and women, who play upon drums and flutes, and make a great noise. The parents of the girl are exceedingly pleased to see the husband using his utmost exertions in jumping, as they think him, in consequence, the more devoted lover of his wife.
They sent their pregnant women to a ‘public receptacle before their ‘accouchement’ and they were kept there for forty days. Men were not allowed to enter this place and only women served them.
The Siah Posh people did not mourn at funerals and in fact, it was solemnized in a joyful manner. The corpse was attended by young men, ‘who sing skip, dance, and play upon drums, unwashed. It is carried upon the shoulders of men, in a large box, to the top of a high mountain, and laid open in the sun. They sacrifice a cow and give a feast to the attendants of the funeral, and return home, not weeping at all. After sixty days, the body would have decayed or eaten by the birds. Then the women of the family in a group would go up the mountain and pick up the bones and wash them in a stream. The bones would be brought home and the women would sit around them and mourn for a short time, ‘After this the men come and convey the bones to a large cave, excavated in the ground. They throw them in it, and, turning to the bones, say, this is your heaven’.
The language of the Siah Posh was mixed with Hindustani, Persian, and Afghani. They were good archers, used spears, and carried swords around their waist and a shield on their backs. Mohan Lal writes They fight with great ferocity, gnashing their teeth, and roaring like a lion. The victors are crowned with chaplets, made of the leaves of the mulberry tree’.
The women managed all outdoor business and men looked after the kids and follow no employment, except that of occasional warfare. The women produced fine rice, wheat, and barley. The fruits were abundant and they made good wine from grapes. Instead of sugar, the Siah Posh used syrup of watermelons. They ate the meat of all animals except dogs and jackals. When a man committed adultery he was fined twelve or thirteen rupees and evoked no anger or jealousy among men.
The men ‘commend the liberality of their females towards every man, who is the best of God’s creatures in the world’. The Siah Posh people claimed descent from the Arabs but some of them stated that they descended from the Macedonian soldiers.
The artists in Kafiristan were called Bari. They were treated badly by other Siah Posh and were not allowed to sit before them. They used force to sell the children of Baris to the Muslims of neighboring provinces. The Siah Posh people called Bari, the descendants of those slaves ‘which their lion-figured fathers brought at the invasion of India’. However, they do not mention particularly the name of Sikandar (Alexander).
According to Sir George Scott Robertson, there was no literature or written character of any kind in Kafiristan. He writes that the dominant races of Kafiristan-the Katirs, the Kdm, and the Wai-have mainly descended from the ancient Indian population of Eastern Afghanistan that refused to embrace Islam in the 10th century and fled for refuge from the victorious Muslims to the hilly countries of Kafiristan.
Robertson adds that there they found other races already settled, ‘whom they vanquished, drove away, or enslaved, or with whom they amalgamated’. He adds that part of the slave population including the Jazhis and the Aroms, were remnants of these people.
He theorizes that the Fresuns were probably a more or less aboriginal race, who either successfully resisted the newcomers or were driven from more fertile regions and milder altitudes to their present valley’. He writes that Safeh Posh tribes are entirely different from the Siah Posh tribes, ‘They are remarkable for their more peaceful disposition, and their inefficiency as fighting men. They have patient stolid faces for the most part, and, compared with the Kafirs, are heavy in their movements. The thick clothes they wear add to their clumsy appearance. They are a simple people, very industrious, capable of wonderful feats of endurance, and, with the exception of the inhabitants of one of the villages, Pushkigrom, they are meek and poor spirited’.
The religion of Kafirs is described as a low form of idolatry with an admixture of ancestor worship with some minor traces of fire-worship. There were a number of gods and goddesses with varying degrees of importance or popularity. Robertson writes that the gods were worshipped by sacrifices, by dances, by singing hymns, and by uttering invocations. Fairies and demons were appeased by sacrifices. The high god of the pre-Islamic Nuristani religion was the god Imra, derived from the Hindu god Yama, and was also called Mara. Another god was Indr, derived from Indra. He was seen as the brother of the god Gisht and father of Pano and the goddess Dishani (Disni).
There were also many other minor gods worshiped in the region. 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 deity, who demanded a sacrifice of livestock in appeasement.