The Nuristanis are a small and ancient collection of approximately 15 tribes in northeast Afghanistan in the provinces of Lagman and Konar along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The Nuristanis were also known for centuries among other Muslim Afghans by the pejorative.

For centuries the Nuristanis lived in a quasi-independent state of Nuristan (also called Kafirstan). Nuristan is approximately 5,000 square miles in area. Throughout the 19th century the Nuristani tribes fell between the Afghan and British Indian empires, but frequently fell under term “Kafirs” (infidels), due to their historical refusal to convert to Islam.

Although the Nuristani tribes share similar customs and traditions, they speak five different languages. While there is some overlap between some of the Nuristani languages, many of the Nuristani tribes cannot communicate with one another. Some Nuristanis claim that they are descendants of the Greek occupying forces of Alexander the Great, who conquered the region in 327 B.C.

Ruins from Alexander the Great’s Military Garrison at Balkh in northwestern Afghanistan Map of Nuristan, a region that spans the contemporary Lachman and Konar Provinces in eastern Afghanistan

Towards the end of the 19th century the Afghans and British established the “Durrand Line” between Afghan controlled territories and British India. The “Durrand Line” ceded most of Nuristan into the Afghan sphere of influence, with the exception of some of the Kalash tribes. Between 1893-96, King Abdul Rahman of Afghanistan formally incorporated Nuristan (Kafirstan) into Afghanistan, forcibly converting the Nuristanis to Islam and officially naming the region Nuristan, which means “Land of Light.”

Tribes & Languages

Nuristani forms a linguistic group as a well as an ethnic group. Within the Indo-European linguistic family, the Nuristani language group forms a third sub-group of the Indo-Iranian group. This Nuristani language group is now believed not to be a part of a larger “Dardic” group of Indo-Iranian languages, including Khowar and Dardi (Kashmiri).

Although the Nuristani are a small group of people and form a single language group, they are linguistically very diverse within this group. This linguistic diversity is sustained by the inaccessible nature of many of the geographical enclaves in which many of these subtribes live. There are five languages spoken among the approximately fifteen Nuristani subtribes: Vasi, Kamkata viri, aSkuNu viri, Kalasa, and Tregami. Vasi and Kamkata viri form a Northern Nuristani language cluster, which has been more influenced by subsequent Iranian languages that have spread through the Hindu Kush. ASkuNu viri, Kalasa, and Tregami form a Southern Nuristani language cluster, which retains a purer connection to the original Indo-Iranian subgroup. Among these languages, there are many dialects, some of which vary village to village. Some of these dialects overlap between the languages.

Vasi is spoken in Upper, Middle, and Lower dialects by the Vasi people of the Parun valley.

Kamakata viri is spoken by the Kata, Kom, Mumo, kSto, bini, Jamco, and Jasi peoples. The Kata speak two dialects of Kamakata viri, known as Western and Eastern Katavari. Western Katavari is spoken in Ramgal, which is the upper Alingar river basin, in the Ktivi valley, off the upper Pech river, and in the PeRuk valley, off the upper LanDai Sin. Eastern Katavari is spoken in the upper LanDai Sin, and along the Pakistani border. The Kom, kSto, Jasi, Binio, and Jamco speak another dialect, Kamviri or kStaviri.

The Mumo speak a transitional dialect, Mumviri, which is between Kamviri and Eastern Katavari.

Askunu viri is spoken by the Asku people. Among the Asku, there are different dialects among the peoples of the Bazaigal, Kolata, and Titin valleys off the middle Alingar, and among the Sama and Gramsana peoples of the middle Pech river valley. The Kalasa people speak Kalasa, as well as the three other ethnic groups, the Vata, the Ksto and the Kstorm. A major dialect separates the Varjan Kalasa of the upper Vaigal river valley from the Cima-Nisei Kalasa of the lower Vaigal valley. Among the Varjan, there are minor dialects within each village. Kalasha is also spoken by Nuristanis living in the valleys of Bumboret, Birir, and Rumbur in the Pakistani district of Chitral in the Northwest Frontier Province.

Tregami is spoken by the Tregami people in three villages of the Tregam valley of the lower Pech river.