The area known as Nuristan is located at the southern end of the Hindu Kush mountain range in Afghanistan. Historically, this area was known as Kafiristan and the inhabitants as Kafirs. Nuristan has a temperate climate with enough precipitation to provide plenty of water for irrigated agriculture. There are limited amounts of arable land in the Hindu Kush, but there are abundant amounts of pastureland well suited for transhumance. Subsistence is based on the production of cereal grains and of dairy products from goats and cattle.
Nuristan is an ethnically and linguistically diverse region in which six mutually unintelligible and unwritten languages are spoken. The Nuristani Group of languages, a branch of the Indo-Iranian Subfamily of Indo-European languages, contains five of these languages. The sixth language, Pashai, is spoken in the far western part of Nuristan by groups of Pashai peoples who are considered to be a culturally distinct group and who live mostly outside Nuristan.
On the basis of linguistic and cultural affinities Nuristanis may be divided into three different groupings: those calling themselves Kalasha; the Kati, Mumo, Kshto, and Kom peoples; and the Vasi. The Kalasha groups live in the southern part of Nuristan and constitute three of the five Nuristani linguistic communities. The Ashkunu, Gramsana, and Kalasha all speak dialects of a single language. The Kalasha speak an independent language called Kalasha-ala, which is further divided into two dialects. The Tregami speak an independent language that is distinct from, but related to, Kalasha-ala.
The Kati are the most numerous of Nuristani peoples. The Mumo, Kshto, and Kom all speak different dialects of the same language and are separated into different villages, primarily within central Nuristan. The Vasi, who are considered the most culturally and linguistically distinct of the Nuristani peoples, speak a language that is divided into dialects according to village.
Even though each Nuristani group often regards itself as being as distinct from the others as it is from neighboring non-Nuristani groups, features of their languages and cultures suggest a common origin. The Nuristani languages are believed to share a common phylogeny. Oral traditions indicate a long history of interaction, and there is a common belief that Nuristanis formerly inhabited the Kunar Basin.
The Nuristanis once shared a common religion. They believed that the world was divided into pure and impure, corresponding to the division between gods and people. The gods controlled the destiny of people, which was determined by the generosity of sacrifices to the gods and the purity of individuals and their families. Shamans acted as intermediaries for the people. Sacrifices and purification rites were performed by other specialists. Feasts were seen as acts of generosity in sacrifice, bestowing on the giver(s) both purity and formai social rank.
The basic sociopolitical unit in Nuristan is the village. Villages are surrounded by agricultural land and by mountain and valley grazing areas. The land is owned by male heads of households, and access to grazing areas is a hereditary right of male residents.
Men who are seen as promoting cohesiveness tend to gain leadership within the village. Open conferences are held whenever decisions affecting the entire community are needed. At these conferences, skilled leaders are given the authority to resolve a community crisis. Leaders maintain their authority only as long as they have the consensus of other political leaders or until the crisis is resolved.
The role of mediator is crucial to the maintenance of social cohesion. Political leaders emerge largely because of their abilities to resolve conflicts within the community. Conflict resolution takes the form of determining, through mediation, an appropriate compensation. In disputes involving bloodshed, blood money is demanded and expected. Blood disputes are particularly dangerous for the community because the aggrieved, or his agnatic kin, may seek blood vengeance. Avoiding bloodshed is a major motivation prompting men to become mediators.
Cooperation within Nuristani culture is based on kinship ties. Agnatic kin are expected to support each other in times of crisis or need. Because agnatic ties are so central, Nuristani men who have frequent interpersonal relations with Nuristanis from other villages will adopt them as brothers. Those adoptive ties, along with the ties of intermarriages, are the primary links between different Nuristani groups.
Traditionally, only men could own property, and grazing rights were inherited through the male line only. Today, under Islamic law, women are also entitled to a share of the patrimony, but in practice their share usually reverts to their brothers or close male agnates.
Nuristanis are divided into two endogamous castes—a lower caste of artisans and a landowning upper caste. The former were slaves until the twentieth century, and they are still predominantly disenfranchised. The lower caste produces the woodworking, blacksmithing, pottery, weaving, and basketry products used by all Nuristanis.
In addition to caste specialization, there is also a division of labor based on gender. Traditionally, males and females were expected to contribute to the production of a meal. The women provided the bread, which meant they were responsible for all agricultural production and the gathering of firewood. The men provided a dairy product, which meant they cared for the goats and cattle.
Some of the cultural divergences among Nuristani groups arise from differences in the environment and the availability of land; others are based on variations in kinship organization. For example, the Kalasha and Kati recognize formalized groupings of close agnates that are lacking in the descent model of the Kom and Kshto. Other cultural differences, such as variations in dress, house construction, and music, coincide with the three major Nuristani ethnic divisions.
Nuristanis have generally considered themselves dominated by an oppressive regime ever since their incorporation into Afghanistan in 1896. They saw no advantage in a Sovietled Communist government after the coup of 1978, and therefore launched an attack that led to a nationwide uprising against that regime. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, there have been few reports on the Nuristani culture.
Edelberg, Lennart, and Schuyler Jones (1979). Nuristan. Graz: Akademische Drucku.
Strand, Richard F. (1973). "Notes on the Nuristani and Dardic Languages." Journal of the American Oriental Society 93(3): 297-305.
Strand, Richard F. (1974). "Principles of Kinship Organization among the Kom Nuristani." In Cultures of the Hindu-Kush: Selected Papers from the Hindu-Kush Cultural Conference Held at Moesgaord, 1970, edited by Karl Jettmar in collaboration with Lenaart Edelberg. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner.
Strand, Richard F. (1975). "The Changing Herding Economy of the Kom Nuristani." Afghanistan Journal 2(4): 123-134.
Strand, Richard F. (1984). "Nuristanis." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, edited by Richard V. Weekes, 569-574. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.