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Map showing present-day Nuristan Province of Afghanistan
Map of Kafiristan prior to its conversion to Islam in 1890s

Kāfiristān or Kāfirstān (Pashto: کافرستان‎) is a historical region that covered present-day Nuristan Province in Afghanistan and its surroundings. It was also referred to as "Afica", but this was changed because of its close similarity with the name of the continent Africa. This historic region lies on, and mainly comprises, the basins of the rivers Alingar, Pech (Kamah), Landai Sin, and Kunar, and the intervening mountain ranges. It is bounded by the main range of the Hindu Kush on the north, the city of Chitral in what is now Pakistan to the east, the Kunar Valley in the south, and the Alishang River in the west. Kafiristan took its name because the inhabitants of the region were non-Muslims and were thus known to the surrounding Muslim population as kafirs, meaning "non-believers". They are closely related to the Kalash people, a fiercely independent people with a distinctive culture, language and religion.


  • Etymology 1
  • History 2
    • Ancient 2.1
    • Ghaznavids era 2.2
    • Modern 2.3
  • Appearances in popular culture 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5


Kafiristan or Kafirstan is normally taken to mean land of the kafirs in Persian language, where the name "kafir" is derived from the Arabic "kaafer" literally meaning a person who refuses to accept a principle of any nature and figuratively as a person refusing to accept Islam as his faith and is commonly translated into English as an "infidel", "idolater", or "pagan". Kafiristan was inhabited by a polytheistic pagan culture before large numbers converted to Islam in the 1890s.

The word "kafir" has also been suggested to be linked to Kapiś (= Kapish), the ancient Sanskrit name of the region that included historic Kafiristan. According to the theory, the name may have then mutated at some point into the word Kapir, and once again into the word Kafir.[1][2][3][4]



Ancient Kapiśa Janapada, located south-east of the Hindukush, included and is related to Kafiristan.[5] The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang who visited Kapisa in 644 AD calls it Kai-pi-shi(h).[6] Xuanzang describes Kai-pi-shi[7] as a flourishing kingdom ruled by a Buddhist Kshatriya king holding sway over ten neighbouring states including Lampaka, Nagarahara, Gandhara and Bannu. Until the 9th century AD, Kapiśi remained the second capital of the Shahi dynasty of Kabul. Kapiśa was known for goats and their skin.[8] Xuanzang talks of Shen breed of horses from Kapiśa (Kai-pi-shi). There is also a reference to Chinese emperor Tai-Tsung being presented with excellent breed of horses in 637 AD by an envoy from Chi-pin (Kapisa).[9] Further evidence from Xuanzang shows that Kai-pi-shi produced all kind of cereals, many kinds of fruits, and a scented root called Yu-kin, probably khus or vetiver. The people used woollen and fur clothes and gold,[10][11] silver and copper coins. Objects of merchandise from all parts were found here.[12]

Ghaznavids era


The first European to visit Kafiristan was a Portuguese Jesuit missionary named Benedictus Gomes S.J. who mentions a city called "Capherstam"[14] in Afghanistan visited by him in 1602 during the course of a journey from Lahore to China.[15] The British adventurer Colonel Alexander Gardner claimed to have visited Kafiristan twice, in 1826 and 1828.[15] The first time was when Dost Mohammad, the Amir of Kabul, killed members of Gardner's delegation in Afghanistan forcing him to flee from Kabul to Yarkand through west Kafiristan.[15] The second time was when Gardner had a brief sojourn in northern Kafiristan and the Kunar Valley while returning from Yarkand.[15]

Second Anglo-Afghan War and later British political officer in the Princely State of Chitral, was given permission to explore the country of the Kafirs in 1890–91. He was the last outsider to visit the area and observe these people's polytheistic culture before conversion. He published a description in 1896 called The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush. Though some sub-groups such as the Kom paid tribute to Chitral, most of Kafiristan was left on the Afghan side of the frontier in 1893, when large areas of tribal lands between Afghanistan and British India were divided into zones of control by the Durand Line.

Soon after Robertson’s visit, in 1895-6, Emir Abdur Rahman Khan invaded and converted the Kafirs to Islam as a symbolic climax to his campaigns to bring the country under a centralised Afghan government. He had similarly subjugated the Hazara people in 1892-3. In 1896 Abdur Rahman Khan, who had thus conquered the region for Islam,[16] renamed the people as Nuristani ("Enlightened Ones" in Persian) and the land as Nuristan ("Land of the Enlightened").

Kafiristan consisted of steep, wooded valleys and was famous for its crisp wood carving especially of cedar-wood pillars, carved doors, furniture (including 'horn-chairs') and statues. Some of these pillars survive reused in mosques, but all temples, shrines, and cult places with their wooden effigies and multitudes of ancestor figures were torched. Only a small amount were brought back to Kabul as spoils of this Islamic victory over infidels. These consisted of various wooden effigies of ancestral heroes and pre-Islamic commemorative chairs. Of the more than thirty wooden figures brought to Kabul in 1896 or shortly thereafter, fourteen went to the Kabul Museum and four to the Musée Guimet and the Musée de l'Homme in Paris.[17] Those in the Kabul Museum were badly damaged under the Taliban but have since been restored.[18]

A few hundred Kati Kafirs (the Red Kafirs of the Bashgal Valley) fled across the border into Chitral but, uprooted from their homeland, had converted by the 1930s. They settled near the frontier in the valleys of Rumbur, Bumboret and Urtsun, which were then inhabited by the Kalasha tribe (the Black Kafirs). Only this group in the three valleys of Birir, Bumburet and Rumbur escaped conversion, because they were located east of the Durand line in the Princely State of Chitral. After declining population figures because of forced conversion in the 1970s, this region of Kafiristan in Pakistan, known as Kalasha Desh, has recently shown an increase in its population.

Appearances in popular culture

See also


  1. ^ Geographical and Economic Studies in the Mahābhārata: Upāyana Parva, 1945, p 44, Dr Moti Chandra - India.
  2. ^ Census of India, 1961, p 26, published by India Office of the Registrar General.
  3. ^ See also: Kāṭhakasaṅkalanam: Saṃskr̥tagranthebhyaḥ saṅgr̥hītāni Kāṭhakabrāhmaṇa, Kāṭhakaśrautasūtra, 1981, p xii, Surya Kanta; cf: The Contemporary Review, Vol LXXII, July-Dec, 1897, p 869, A. Strahan (etc), London.
  4. ^ S. Levi states that Chinese Kipin is a rendering of an Indian word Kapir (See quote in: Geographical and Economic Studies in the Mahābhārata: Upāyana Parva, 1945, p 44, Moti Chandra - India; See also: Bhārata-kaumudī; Studies in Indology in Honour of Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerji, 1945, p 916, Radhakumud Mookerji - India).
  5. ^ Ethnology of Ancient Bhārata, 1970, p 112, Dr R. C. Jain; Ethnic Settlements in Ancient India: (a Study on the Puranic Lists of the Peoples of Bharatavarsa, 1955, p 133, Dr S. B. Chaudhuri; The Cultural Heritage of India, 1936, p 151, Sri Ramakrishna Centenary Committee; Geography of the Mahabharata, 1986, p 198, Bhagwan Singh Suryavanshi.
  6. ^ Another Chinese name for this region was Ki-pin or Chi-pin.
  7. ^ Su-kao-seng-chaun, Chapter 2, (no. 1493); Kai-yuan-lu, chapter 7; Publications, 1904, p 122-123, published by Oriental Translation Fund (Editors Dr T. W. Rhys Davis, S. W. Bushel, London, Royal Asiatic Society).
  8. ^ Geography of the Mahabharata, 1986, p 183, B. S.Suryavanshi.
  9. ^ See:: T'se-fu-yuan-kuei, p 5024; Wen hisen t'ung-k'ao, 337: 45a; Diplomacy and Trade in the Chinese World, 589–1276, 2005, P 345, Hans Bielenstein
  10. ^ Corpus II. 1, xxiv; Cambridge History of India, Vol i\I, p 587.
  11. ^ Ancient references like Mahabharata, Ramayana etc profusely attest that the Kambojas produced and made use of woollen, fur and skin clothes and shawls, all embroidered with gold. Ancient Kambojas were noted for their horses, gold, woollen blankets, furry clothing etc (Foundations of Indian Culture, 1990, p 20, Dr Govind Chandra Pande – Spiritualism (Philosophy); Hindu World, Volume I, 1968, p 520, Benjamin Walker etc
  12. ^ Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, 1906, p 54 & fn, By Samuel Beal.
  13. ^ The political and statistical history of Gujarát by ʻAlī Muḥammad Khān, James Bird. PAGE 29.
  14. ^ Pieter Vander Aa. "De Land-Reyse, door Benedictus Goes, van Lahor gedaan, door Tartaryen na China". Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps. 
  15. ^ a b c d Newby, Eric. "A little bit of protocol". A short walk in the Hindukush. Picador India. pp. 74–93.  
  16. ^ Tanner, Stephen. Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002. Page 64
  17. ^ Edelberg, Lennart. "Statues de bois rapporte‚ es du Kafiristan aà Kabul apreàs la conquête de cette province par l'Emir Abdul Rahman en 1895/96," Arts Asiatiques 7, 1960, pp. 243–286
  18. ^ "R20405 KAkir sculpture from Nuristan destroyed by the talibans then restored". 
  • Greg, Mortenson. Stones into Schools. Penguin Books, 2009; p. 259
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