This article has been extracted from
THE IMPERIAL GAZETTEER OF INDIA , 1908.
OXFORD, AT THE CLARENDON PRESS.
Note: National, provincial and district boundaries have changed considerably since 1908. Typically, old states, ‘divisions’ and districts have been broken into smaller units, and many tahsils upgraded to districts. Some units have since been renamed. Therefore, this article is being posted mainly for its historical value.
literally, ' the country of the infidels
A mountainous region in Afghanistan, lying due north of Jalalabad, in which district it is now included. Its approximate area is about 5,000 square miles. Its boundaries are the Hindu Kush on the north ; the eastern water- shed of the Bashgal on the east; the Kunar valley and the Kabul country on the south ; and on the west the ranges above the Nijrao and Panjshlr valleys. Kafiristan consists of an irregular series of main valleys, for the most part deep, narrow, and tortuous, into which a number of ravines and glens pour their torrents. The hills separating the main valleys one from the other are of considerable altitude, rugged, and difficult. As a consequence, during the winter, Kafiristan consists practically of a number of separate communities with no means of communication with one another. The country appears to be divided into three main drainage systems — those of the Kao or Alingar; of the Pech or Kamah, named after the important pass of that name ; and of the Bashgal. All these streams ultimately find their way into the Kabul river.
In Kafiristan every kind of mountain scenery is to be met with. At the lower elevations the hill-sides are covered with wild olives and evergreen oaks. Fruit trees abound — the walnut, mulberry, apricot, apple, and vine— while splendid horse chestnuts and other trees offer pleasant shade in the hot season. As one ascends, the fruit trees disappear, being replaced by dense pine and cedar forests. These in their turn cease — the hills above 9,000 feet are almost bare — but the willow, birch, and juniper cedar are found. Above 13,000 feet no vegetation exists, except rough grasses and mosses. The rivers teem with fish, which, however, no Kafir will eat. The chief wild animals are the mdrkhor, the urial, leopards, and bears. With the exception of a short visit to the upper part of the Bashgal valley by Colonel Lockhart's mission in September, 1885, and of Sir George Robertson's two visits in 1889 and 1890-1, the country has not been penetrated by any Europeans in modern times. The people of the country, styled Kafirs (‘ infidels ') by their orthodox Afghan neighbours, were known to the emperor Babar as the Siahposh ('wearers of black raiment').
They comprise several more or less inimical tribes, differing from one another in language, dress, manners, and customs ; and even their primitive pagan religion afforded no bond of common union. This was a somewhat low form of idolatry, with an admixture of ancestor cult and traces of fire-worship. Their total number probably does not exceed 60,000. Until recent years these mysterious people were popularly supposed to be a fair race, noted for their beauty, and of Graeco-Bactrian origin. As a matter of fact they are by no means fair, their colour being that of the average native of the Punjab ; their usual type of feature is good ; but their beauty, like many other ideas concerning them, is a myth. Sir George Robertson considers that the present dominant races of Kafiristan are mainly descended from the old Indian population of Eastern Afghanistan, who refused to embrace Islam in the tenth century, and fled for refuge from the victorious Moslems to the hills. Dr. Grierson, however, holds that the Kafir dialects (which Dr. Trumpp considered to be a ‘ pure Prakrit ') belong to the non-Sanskritic languages of the Indo-Aryan family, and that 'the speakers of these appear to have arrived at their present seats from the north, and not to be colonists from the south, where that form of Indo-Aryan language which we call Sanskrit became developed ;
Whatever their origin, the Kafirs, except in the case of the outlying Saris (see Jalalabad), succeeded in resisting all attempts at conversion until the reign of the late Amir, when Afghan troops overran the country, and brought about its complete subjection. With the exception of the Ramgulis, who held out for a considerable period, the Kafirs, who were ill-armed, made but a feeble resistance, and have accepted the Muhammadan religion with little demur. A very small garrison of Afghan troops now suffices to keep the country in order.
There is a small slave population, who are perhaps the remnant of more ancient people subjugated by the lately dominant tribe. The affairs of a tribe are nominally arranged by a consultation of headmen who are known as jast ; but, as a matter of fact, in ordinary times, public business falls into the hands of a few elders. Disobedience to the jast is punished by burning down the offender's house and destroying his property. Theft is punishable by a fine of seven or eight times the value of the stolen property, but the full penalty is seldom exacted. The punishment for adultery is a fine in cows varying from three to six. It is in consequence not uncommon for women to endeavour to entangle men in order to get cows for their husbands. Murder and manslaughter are punished alike. The offender must at once leave his village and become a chile or outcast. His house is burnt by the dead man's family or clan and his property plundered ; he must nevermore return to his village except by stealth ; and when- ever he encounters a member of the dead man's family he must at once conceal himself. This stigma applies not only to the criminal himself, but to his direct descendants and to his children-in-law. There are several villages in Kafiristan which are places of refuge, where slayers of their fellow-tribesmen reside permanently.
Kafir women are practically slaves, being to all intents and purposes bought and sold as household commodities. The young women are mostly immoral. There is little or no ceremony about a Kafir marriage. If a man becomes enamoured of a girl, he sends a friend to her father to ask her price. If a price is agreed upon, the man immediately proceeds to the girl's house, where a goat is sacrificed, and then they are considered to be married, though the bride remains with her parents until the full price has been paid. The dead are disposed of in a peculiar manner. They are not buried, or burnt, but are deposited in large boxes, placed on the hill-side or in some more or less secluded spot.