Nuristan: Shedding light on an inaccessible craft

Hidden in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan, Nuristani woodcarvers have perfected their craft over the past thousand years, adorning houses and mosques with carefully carved patterns which meanings have now mostly been lost

Embedded in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains, the region of Kafiristan (“Land of the Infidels”) was long an isolated society. Cut off from the world courtesy of their deep mountain gorges and fierce warriors, their local religion was supplanted by Islam at the end of the 19th century ( renamed ‘Nuristan’, or “Land of Light”), over a millennium after the neighbouring regions. Their unique style of woodcarving, a centuries-old, integral component of their culture, is in dire need of safeguarding lest it be lost forever.

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© 1987 Photo by richard mackenzie

In its efforts to preserve Afghanistan’s intangible cultural heritage, Turquoise Mountain is being supported by the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund to document and support Afghan crafts such as Nuristani woodcarving. In accordance with the guidelines set out by UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, there is a pressing need to carry out background research on the craft prior to the more detailed inventory, systematically exploring Nuristan’s woodcarving history, symbolism and social meaning in collaboration with the National Archives of Afghanistan, the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, and other cultural institutions.

Woodcarving played an integral role in the delineation of Nuristan’s strictly hierarchical, class-based society. The producers of the craft came from the ‘Bari’, a class of people not regarded as members of society. As well as being woodworkers, the ‘Bari’ were more generally labourers, involved in building bridges and water mills, or acting as stone carvers and potters. Deemed to be impure and racially separate from the rest of society, the ‘Bari’ were, prior to the region’s Islamization, treated as slaves. As a result there is no genealogical record of the exceptionally skilled woodcarvers who transmitted the knowledge from master (ustad) to student (shagerd), generation after generation.

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In the past Nuristani woodcarving held significant symbolic meaning and essentially acted as a tool of social signaling to identify acts of greatness, specifically hunting and feast-giving. The ‘Atrozhen’, or class of freemen, who made up about 90% of society, were allowed to decorate - or, rather, have the lower class ‘Bari’ decorate - their houses with the symbols. However, within the ‘Atrozhen’ the privilege was tightly controlled. A community council of Big Men effectively held the exclusive privilege of controlling social movement. The social positions and titles that people were given were obtained only upon this council’s approval.

The designs of the Nuristani style of woodwork are socially symbolic, usually concerning the owners’ bravery or ability to feed others. The motifs would be carved onto door frames, chairs, and the pillars inside and outside their houses’ main room (āmā). Once again there were social restrictions determining who could have the motifs on their houses. The ‘Bari’ were certainly forbidden from employing their talent on their own humble abodes (these would be situated further down the valley and thus in the frontline of any outsiders’ attack.)


Yoshzhanla ba keere, Taza (1998: 175)

An interesting example of a particular motif is the ‘Yoshzhanla ba keere’, ‘Yoshzhanla’ being a person who kills demons. The number of spokes emanating from the central circle corresponds to the number of Nuristan’s enemies the owner has killed. The outer circle represents the Nuristan territory. The four, compass like points refer to a giant, who the Nuristani people pre-Islam believed had four ears. Therefore, someone who included this motif in the design of, for instance, their hearth pillar was deemed able to protect his people from giants and enemies.

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Lennart Edelberg fig. 18, p. 12

In addition to praising their fellow citizens for killing human enemies, Nuristani people also bestowed honour upon those adept at hunting. The best hunters would have a figurative depiction of a male goat’s head carved onto their doors (sookheng). The symbolism was enhanced by the addition of lines and small circles on the goats’ horns. The lines corresponded to the number of ibex killed; the circles the number of tigers.

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Symbols denoting prowess at hunting and killing were often combined with those of feast-giving, a very important social duty of wealthier Nuristanis. The ‘Panong’ symbol shows, from the peripherally-situated triangles, that ceremonial feasts were given by the family figure not only to the local village but also to people from other Nuristan communities. Like other symbols it was carved on doors and pillars of the family home. In addition it could be weaved into the family members’ clothing, particularly the boys and girls, coloured in blue and red.

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Our research so far has shown us what a complex and underappreciated craft Nuristani woodcarving is. This is unsurprising, not only due to the community’s isolation, but also given how little value and respect was previously attached to the skill by the Nuristani community. Besides the challenge from the region’s insecurity, the primary threat to this craft over the last few decades has centered largely on the disruption of the traditional social fabric that migration of the ‘Bari’ has wrought. It is therefore paramount to document and preserve the knowledge of this craft before it is too late.