Interview With A Nuristani – The Mediation Via Memory Of Some Detail Of Their Once-Living Faith

Earlier this week, we ran an article looking at some of the issues with Kalasha / Nuristani religion – specifically, why claims of its being a somehow ‘more pure’ and ‘pre-Vedic’ Indo-Aryan faith don’t really stack up. 

I said in the course of that piece that I’d be adding more substantive material in subsequent efforts, and as a bit of a primer for these I present the following. 

Now, to explicate what’s going on here … the core kernel of this is an excerpt from a rather remarkable interview undertaken in 1973 by an intrepid linguist and anthropologist – one Richard Strand – who trekked up into Afghanistan to meet the subjects of his research. 

There, he encountered a man by the name of Zaman Xan – the then-current headman of the clan of Nuristanis whose role had been to keep a major site of worship for the chief deific of the Nuristanis – variously known as Imra, Imro, or Mara. 

Now, obviously, the early 1970s were quite some time after the conversion to Islam of the Nuristanis (this having begun in serious earnest in the 1890s at sword-point) – however, it is worth noting that what Xan is recollecting was still within his own living memory. 

Indeed, holdouts to the ‘old faith’ still existed and were practising in some fashion even after he had ascended to a position of authority within his tribe. He describes, as a point of brief interest, an occurrence some time previously when a ‘shaman’ of the old faith had come back to the valley he lived in and engaged in the old customary practices … only to have ‘Talibon’ [translated as Muslim ‘Religious Students’ – and yes, ‘Taliban’ is the same term] turn up from elsewhere and seek to violently suppress the character. 

It can be fairly alleged that there is capacious room for things having ‘drifted’ even inside a few decades from what things might have more ‘authentically’ been when the faith of his forefathers was still a properly ‘live’ one – and yet, I am not sure how much this might be overstated. It seems that Xan had some awareness and could give some limited information about previous Western visitation to the region in pre-Islamic times – so certainly, given the depth of comparative resonancy for what he had to say about other matters, it would be entirely inappropriate to eschew it out of hand. 

Nevertheless, on with the show. And our relevant excerpt: 

Zaman Xan: “If one of them was going to put on a feast, he went to Imro’s “Mecca”, as they would say, down there in Kṣtegi. That “Big Mecca” is also in the Arabic language. “Mecca” is Persian, isn’t it? Our old-time people would say o öl mâka. ‘öl mâkâ. The meaning of ‘öl mâkâ was this: ‘Big Mecca’.”

Richard Strand: ” They would say “Mecca”?”

Z.X.: “Yes. They would say mâk’â. In the old days. They would say mâk’â. They would be talking about ‘öl mâka. Furthermore, they would say that in Mecca there were eighteen gods. Eighteen gods. Eighteen gods. Among these eighteen gods there were three things they called h’elut, m’unut, and ’uzut. They would say that these three things were three Imros. Imro was one, but he had three names. If someone here wanted to tell the truth and swear an oath, they would take him there.”

R.S.: “To that place there?”

Z.X.: “They went to that place.”

R.S.: “What’s the name of that place?

Z.X.: “The place is mâreš ‘ire. m’âreš, ’ire.”

R.S.: ” What’s ’ire?”

Z.X.: “‘ire, that is, mâreš place. Imro’s place. They would say, “Go there and say it to h’elut, m’ulut, and ’uzut, if you want to make an oath.” Now here if you think about Mecca, it’s almost the same thing. How would it be; they had eighteen idols there in pre-Islamic times. They were set up there in Mecca. With the eighteen idols were the big idols låt; mån’åt, and ǧuz’åt. These were the big idols. The people here would say h’elut, m’ânut, and ’uzut, right? I would think, “Son of a bitch, words from way over there were brought all the way here?” Did they hear about them and do it this way? Whatever it might have been. I think they must have heard about it and done it this way.”

Now, straightaway you can see why I found this interview section to be most interesting. Because what we have here is a situation wherein Xan is pointedly aware that his own ancestral religious understanding bears some overt resemblance to a Muslim one. By which I mean – those three figures he mentions, look suspiciously like the al-Lat, Manat, and al-‘Uzza that were three pre-Islamic goddess-figures associated with the Muslim Mecca of Arabia. How do we explain this?

Well, the obvious answer is to presume that he’s got the details wrong – and that a conflation has been made between a feature of the original Mecca – that of Arabia – and the site referred to as ‘Mecca’ for the Kafiris by others labelling their faith. Although it seems a rather curious and specific one; and it is also rather jarring and out of keeping given that various of the other details Xan is able to give in the same interview and indeed the same portion of the interview, do actually align with either what we know of the relevant Kafiristan faith, or at least do resonate reasonably strongly with what we should presume it to have contained upon the basis of broader Indo-European / specifically Indo-Aryan comparanda. 

However, another possibility – and one that I think strikes closer to the truth of the matter – is that there had, indeed, been some degree of cross-over influence at some point previously. And therefore, it is not so much that Xan is mistaken – but that Xan is relaying a syncretic perspective which was authentically what persons prior to him had believed. Although just how far back these prior beliefs may stretch – i.e. at what point such syncreticism may have ensued – I am not in a position to say. It could be relatively recent, or it could be at any point in pretty much the past thousand years that there has been sustained culturo-religious contact between the Kafiristanis / Nuristanis and their Muslim neighbours. Certainly, it would make a rather great ‘active camouflage’ to enable them to be able to get on with their non-Islamic religion almost in plain sight over that time, by telling anybody who might seek to do as those ‘Talibon’ did to the old ‘shaman’ – that in fact, they were indeed practicing ‘Islam’, see just look at our “Mecca”, etc. 

A third element, potentially non-exclusive with the first and/or second potential explanation – is that some level of inadvertent syncreticism has ensued through genuine linguistic and functional coincidence. It is not improbable that ‘Maka’ has some meaning in Vasi [the relevant, and rather rarified Nuristani dialect in question], and that its reference has been misinterpreted (whether deliberately or otherwise) to be the same as Arabic ‘Mecca’. I am not sure if there is another ‘Mecca’ in Persian that is not from that Arabic origination; although as a point of interest, the relevant PIE term [‘*Meghs’] informing Sanskrit ‘Maha’ and Ancient Greek ‘Mega’ (and, for that matter, ‘Much’ in our own English language) – turns into ‘Maka’ in Tocharian B and ‘Mec’ in Old Armenian, so perhaps … just perhaps … ‘Ol Maka’ as ‘Big Mecca’ is really more ‘Big’, ‘Important’ as shorthand for the saliency and the size of the relevant center of worship for them. No Arabic ‘Mecca’ required – until later. 

Still, it is a curious thing for the Nuristanis to have chosen – if that is, indeed, what they might have done – to adopt this particular Islamic-context garbing if they were endeavouring to ‘hide’ their religion in plain sight. Why? Because Manat, in particular has some ‘history’ as applies Afghan Islam. Now, this is not the place to get into the most curious and vexed situation of the three pre-Islamic goddess figures in a Quranic context. Suffice to say .. it’s complicated, and leads into some very problematic bits and pieces around whether Muhammad may have been induced to err in writing the relevant verses. 

But what we can say, is that there was a belief amidst at least some Muslims that the worshippers of Manat had survived, fled eastwards at the time of their appointed destruction (by apostates from her former worship to the new Islam), and carried an idol of Manat in that direction with them. We can say this, because Mahmud of Ghazni – the rather prominent warlord I have occasionally written things about [see, for instance, my ‘On the Gates of Somnath Temple’, et al.] stated a belief that his raid upon Somnath [one of the holy Jyotirlingam sites of Lord Shiva – the Lord of the Soma , ‘Soma-Natha’] was justified by a desire to ‘finish the job’ which Muhammad had started, under the erroneous belief that Somnath was, in fact, ‘Su-Manat’ and therefore a continued site of worship for this pre-Islamic Arabic deific. Even at the time, that was not considered particularly sound reasoning in various Islamic accounts of the raids, but I digress. 

To return to Xan’s words, and our investigation of the faith of his forefathers via his recollection – what interests me primarily is this portion:

“They would say that these three things were three Imros. Imro was one, but he had three names. If someone here wanted to tell the truth and swear an oath, they would take him there.”

Now, a triform or ‘triple-aspected’ / ‘three-faced’ understanding for a powerful deity is entirely within the realms of Indo-European potentiality, and Indo-Aryan well-attested fact. I have written extensively, for instance, upon the concept of Zeus Triophthalmos [‘Three Eyed Zeus’ – Zeus as simultaneously Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon .. to succinctly summarize], and ‘Rule of Three’ symbolism is an indelible core of Shaivite iconography (as seen, for instance, with the Trishula, Tripundra [the ‘Three Lines’ worn upon the forehead], etc. etc. etc.], whilst within the Nordic comparanda we find ourselves confronted with Hárr, Jafnhárr, and Þriði [i.e. ‘High’, ‘Just-As-High’, and ‘Third’] as forms of Odin. Triple-forms for a Goddess would make even more sense – the Diva Triformis, as I have written upon elsewhere, or Parvati – Durga – Kali, being two instantly prominent exemplars. 

It should therefore be considered probable that there is truth to what Xan is saying – and that a ‘Triple-Named’ or ‘Triple-Formed’ Imro is, indeed, something that his ancestors believed in; even though there is an immediate temptation to presume that such ‘Trinitarianism’ is instead some kind of Islamicized confusion (an ironic situation were this to have been the case, considering the pointed Islamic rejection of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity – and labelling of Christians as ‘Polytheists’ in consequence). It would most certainly help to resolve another situation that is observed elsewhere when rendering Nuristani / Kalasha faith – that of the difficulty in reconciling what people keep insisting are separate deifics, with the evident fact that the actual inheritors of the religious sphere in question (i.e. those aforementioned Nuristanis & Kalasha) don’t quite seem to view it that way. Or, phrased more succinctly: if there really is an understanding for Imra / Imro to have such triple-names and facings, then my ongoing contention around their Mahandeo [i.e. Mahadeva – Lord Shiva] as being coterminous with Imro, is less outlandish. In fact, it is not outlandish at all considering the attested beliefs of various of these tribes in this precise area – but more upon that in due course, in a subsequent (A)Arti-cle when we come to it. Onwards!

The other issue here is in the second sentence of his statement – the one around going to this site in order to “tell the truth and swear an oath”. 

Now, again, it’s possible that this is the result of syncreticism, fuelled by the bringing together of Islamic influences with what was there before. I say this, because various of the pre-Islamic deities of Arab Mecca –  al-Lat, Manat, and al-‘Uzza – which appear strongly to have informed what Xan describes, were indeed correlate with swearing of oaths. Although I am not quite sure how plausible it should have been for Xan to have known that, even though he evidently knew the names (although not, perhaps, that these were goddesses) – the attestations for the characteristic in question being, for obvious reasons, something predominantly pre- Islamic rather than post; and thusly, as applies the former, not so much part of any textual corpus he might easily have come into contact with. 

However, it is also possible that this characteristic, too, is something archaically endogenous to the Nuristani faith. There are various attestations for, for a start, holy places and their altars being places one should expect to tell the truth and swear an oath. Although in the Vedic schema, we should more properly anticipate the Fire (Agni) for this – as flaming witness. Which is certainly a logical extension of both the Altar concept, and the Divine Witness concept also relevant for it. In comparative Indo-European understanding we are certainly familiar with Zeus Horkios and other such deific expressions [indeed, the Iuppiter Lapis – ‘Jupiter Stone’ – of the Romans stands particularly out in my mind], and there is likewise attestation from the time when Kafiristani religion was still alive for Imro in this regard – to be found in the very same work of that Britischer, George Scott Robertson, who ventured to their lands in the 1890s shortly before it was so actively suppressed. 

Although ‘Oaths’, whilst correct, is perhaps incomplete in its connotation. Much of the oath-making we seem to see exhibited in the studies, appears to be peace-making between feuding individuals or clans. Treaty-making, we ought perhaps term it. And while, again, there is a strong Imra / Imro saliency to these – of perhaps more immediate interest if we are to seriously explore the Kafiristani / Nuristani religion in proper Indo-European terms, is ‘another’ figure: ‘Arom’. 

Now Arom, has often been simply (and, to my mind, erroneously) stated to be Rama. It is not hard to see how this conclusion has been arrived at – there is an obvious phonetic resemblancy. And yet … something else seems more salient – to me, at any rate. 

Proto-Indo-European *Rem – ‘Support/Hold Fast’, turns into various terms such as Tocharian A ‘Ram’ and Tocharian B ‘Reme’. What does this mean? ‘Witness’. There is some speculation linking this to Greek ‘Rhema’, as in ‘Utterance’, and thence PIE ‘Wremn’ (i.e. “Word’, in particular here, a bearer of) – however that is another matter for another time. One of the prospective etymologies (and corresponding, if somewhat adjacently so, Sanskrit meaning-fields) for Hindu Rama pertains to ‘pleasing’, ‘agreeable’ – something of potential utility for treaty-making for reasons that ought be readily apparent. 

What am I driving at here? The notion that this ‘Arom’, supposed to be invoked and involved in such a context, has to derive from Hindu ‘Rama’, rather than something more closely akin to the meaning of these other words – and therefore not, necessarily, a figure sharing a similar-sounding name yet of not-to-be-assumed-to-be-related character/identity – well, it is a bit lazy, to say the least. 

Another point of interest viz. Arom comes from the reporting of Robertson – who noted that this Arom had ‘seven brothers’, and yet was disappointed to find that the ‘high priest’ he had been approached by to speak of the Kafiri religion apparently knew nothing further of these enigmatic figures. I should be tempted to speculate that these ‘seven’ may in fact be somewhat related to the ‘seven metres’, ‘seven tongues’ etc. we so often encounter with Agni and Brihaspati – and therefore, the identity of the ‘brothers’ being so threadbare is precisely because they were not seven now-forgotten deifics, but instead traits and characteristics linked to the (Sky Father resonant) deific in the relevant role. 

Although with all of that in mind, it is nevertheless worthy of note that even in the early 1890s, prior to the forcible extinguishment of the flame of Kafiri faith – it would nevertheless seem that their circumstances already had faded, the knowledge eroding over the years even in the absence of such calamitous external pressure. Another potential explanation would be that the Kafiri priest did not wish to disclose such knowledge to Robertson – except why, then, should he approach the British scholar precisely to disclose this Arom in the first place if he had such reservations. 

In any case, the series of complications surrounding all of this demonstrates precisely why I find it so eye-roll inducing when people vociferously declare that they hold the religions of the Kafiris / Nuristanis / Kalasha to be some ‘uncorrupted’ and ‘pure’ ‘pre-Vedic’ Aryan religion. Because evidently, there are other things at play here.

Partially, this is the sustained loss of knowledge from what must have been the original and archaic scope of the belief – even were we to accept that these faith(s) come in direct line of descent from something pre-Vedic, the significant size of the religious corpus visible amidst the archaic Indo-Iranics via the portions which also survived in the Iranic sphere and even under the Zoroastrians, demonstrates something of what would have been lost here. 

Partially, it is the potential ‘confusion’ which has gone on, or syncreticism either in memory or in lived practice, with other beliefs from other spheres that have geographically intersected with these mountain-dwelling groups at varying times over the past millennia. 

But mostly it is because we are operating with such a limited informational basis to even make such statements upon in the first instance! There have only been a handful of individuals who’ve made the arduous trek into the mountains to do the requisite fieldwork to obtain these pictures, such as they are, of Kalasha and Kafiri / Nuristani beliefs. The majority of these, particularly as applies the latter sphere, were only able to do so after the religion in question had already been suppressed by their neighbours and begun its painful fade into the realm of memory. And we are unable to adequately determine what, if anything, is definitively true when viewed via that most misty prism – even before considering the not insignificant likelihood of things being misapprehended by interlocutors with whom we are today (or in yesteryear) dealing.

So as applies the commentary around a triple-aspected Imra / Imro – it is most certainly not impossible, it is indeed in accordance with what we might feasibly expect, given occurrences in other Indo-European religious spheres. But in the absence of more hard attestation, it would be rather risky to take it as ‘gospel’ from a man speaking several decades after the religion in question’s passing – especially when the context for the utterance is clearly and demonstrably one where syncretic mashup or confusion with Arabic Muslim belief has occurred.

Further, to speak to that syncreticism with non-Indo-European elements – Xan, our interviewee, did not seem to suggest these were recent developments; but rather, that they were of historic attestation, and had been a part of the living understanding of the last generations of Kafiris prior to Islam’s all-pervasive unfurling across their cultural horizon with the conversions that sealed their heritage’s death-knell. It is possible that he was mistaken in that detail with the entire thing a creature of relatively recent re-imagining, but I do not think it quite so likely to be his mistake if it was one. Instead, I suspect it more strongly to be just exactly that – something that had some previous currency in the living religion, although now beyond our grasp for what, if anything, it might truly have connected to. 

All up, we are left – once more – with fascinating lines of potential speculative interrogation; yet which can only come to anything so much as approaching a reasoned fruition via the light of the broader Indo-European – and more specifically, Vedic / Hindu – sphere. 

2 thoughts on “Interview With A Nuristani – The Mediation Via Memory Of Some Detail Of Their Once-Living Faith

  1. Pingback: Interview With A Nuristani – The Mediation Via Memory Of Some Detail Of Their Once-Living Faith – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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