Dolke, pokaler og magiske søer i Nuristan


  • Schuyler Jones


dolk, pokal, sø, Nuristan


Concerning Katara, Urei, and the Magic Lakes of Nuristan

In 1965 Lennart Edelberg published an article entitled Nuristanske Sølvpokaler (KUML 1965, pp. 153-201). The present article is intended to supplement Edelberg's findings on this and related subjects by offering some of the results of fieldwork carried out in Waigal Valley, Nuristan (1). The idea for this paper has been generated by the fact that to the people who live in Waigal valley a silver cup is much more than just something to drink wine out of; a dagger is much more than just a weapon, and certain lakes are much more than just bodies of water. It was in an effort to understand the relationship between certain products of indigenous technology and cultural values that I began, in 1966, to investigate attitudes toward some elements in the Nuristani environment: viz., daggers, silver cups and lakes.

Waigal Valley is one of four major drainage areas in Nuristan on the southern slopes of the Hindu Kush in northeast Afghanistan. The other main valley systems are the Bashgal/Nechingal; the Parun/Pech (including Kantiwo) and the Ramgal/Kulum/Titin-Nakara areas to the west Waigal Valley contains nine or ten (2) somewhat widely separated permanent settlements. The smallest village, Want, consists of 6 homesteads; the largest, the combined villages of Waramdesh and Berimdesh (usually called Waigal), approximately 500 houses. The total population of the valley may be 10-12 thousand. The Waigal River flows from north to south and the main valley is some 30 kms. long. The people refer to themselves collectively (and their territory) as the Kalashum.

The Waigali-speaking peoples are farmers and herdsmen; the women cultivate millet, maize, barley and wheat on irrigated hill-terraces. The men are responsible for herding the goats, cattle and sheep on a succession of summer pastures where they make butter and cheese. In winter, when snowfalls are often heavy, all livestock are kept in stables near the villages.

There is no motor road in the valley, nor is it possible to travel from one village to the next with horses, mules, or donkeys. The villages are connected with each other and with the outside world only by foot trails. Each extended family is economically self-sufficient; there are no markets or organized systems of exchange in the valley. Afghan currency is little used; the standard of value is the goat, though the price of land and houses is usually given in terms of a number of cows.

Approximately 90 % of the population of Waigal Valley are atrozan, i.e., they form a free land-owning and livestock-herding class, and each member, by virtue of birth, belongs to a named patri-lineage. These lineages are fixed residential groups and are not dispersed. Marriage is patrilocal. Those lineages the members of which trace descent from a common ancestor form a clan. There are usually two or more clans in a village.

The remaining 10 % of the population are either referred to as bari-sewala by Kalashum people, or sometimes, brozan. They are craftsmen and they form a separate, socially and politically disadvantaged minority class in Kalashum society. There is a marriage prohibition between atrozan and brozan. It is said that a bari or sewala may not pass beyond the first pair of columns in an atrozan house; customarily they do not eat together, nor do bari-sewala have any grazing rights. In general they do not own goats, nor do they have an effective voice in village affairs. They form a clearly-defined class, distinguished in everyday life by their traditional occupations. Further, there is a clear distinction, based upon birth, and to some extent, occupation, between bari and sewala. In general bari are skilled craftsmen, while sewala are relatively unskilled. The bari are carpenters and wood-carvers, smiths and jewellers; their wives are weavers. The sewala are potters, basket-makers, leather-workers and porters and are of lower status than bari. The free land-owning, livestock-herding atrozan do not engage in any of these activities. In short, the bari-sewala produce all the material culture of Nuristan.

The skills of the bari smith were perhaps best expressed in the production of two highly esteemed objects: the warrior's dagger (katara), and the silver wine cups (urei). I say were because it seems that bari smiths have not made any wine cups for some three or four generations. Sometimes my informants said that their grandfathers had made urei. The warrior's dagger is still made in the Kalashum village of Zhonchigal but these are so inferior in quality as to merely echo the fine work of earlier generations. The best katara made today are turned out by Afghan smiths in the Kabul bazaar. Some are sold to tourists; others find their way to Nuristan.

Rasically, there are two main types of katara (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). Only the second type - and a variation of that - is made today. The type shown in Fig. 1 (Type I) is characterized by the fact that its wide-spreading pommel is not only equal in breadth to the quillons, but is formed of two separate components. This type may have its origin in Parun Valley, as Lennart Edelberg once suggested to me, but at present we do not know, as the problem has yet to be investigated in the field. The photograph taken by B.E.M. Gurdon in Chitral in the 1890's (Fig. 3) shows a group of warriors some of whom are carrying type I while others carry type II. This evidence suggests that both types were commonly in use at that time, though today type I is more rare than type II (3). The variation of type II shown in Fig. 4 is that produced today in Zhönchigal and Kabul.

What may be described as a third type of katara (Fig. 5) was unearthed in Ameshdesh on the first of September 1969 by women who were cleaning out an irrigation channel. I happened to be present and purchased it from them. A year later, in September 1970, in Nisheigrom, bari Din Mohammed showed me the hilt of a dagger which he had found some years before 'in the mountains' (Fig. 6). He was of the opinion that it was from an ancient Kafir katara - what he called a cima-musti. My own view is that it is more likely to have originated in India (cf. Fig. 7). It could have been obtained via the bazaars in Chitral or Peshawar or it might have been acquired in the course of a trans-border raid. It does, however, seem that the katara shown in Fig. 5 may represent an intermediate type between those known to be of Indian origin (Fig. 7) and the 19th century katara of Nuristan (Figs. 1 & 2). In passing it is also interesting to note the similarity in style between the katara in Fig. 4 and the Jamdhar Katari of Nepal (Fig. 8).

We know from Robertson's account (1896) that the katara was a prized possession of every warrior. Even today most men carry one on their belt; a youth is impatient for the day when he can own one, for it is the mark of a man. It is not surprising therefore to find certain old stories or myths connected with these daggers. All the Kalashum stories concerning blacksmiths with which I am familiar invariably make reference to the Gawari-Kawarnä people. According to legend they lived 'between Ningalam and Chagha Serai' (in the lower Pech Valley). This was in the distant past. They were a community of super craftsmen.

"Gawar is in the mountains above Barkandi. In the old days if a man wanted a fine katara he would go to a certain place near Gawar. On a special stone he would put thirty or forty rupees and then he would leave that place. Two or three days later he would return and there on the stone would be the katara. Our people, the Kafir people, used to believe that those katara were made by spirits. Today if you could find such a dagger, the price would be one cow." (Abdul Qader, Berimdesh, 30th August, 1969).

Another informant (Kazana; Muslim name: Sher Gul), this time in Nishei­grom, related the following on February 16th 1967:

"The Gawari-Kawarna people lived between Ningalam and Chagha Serai. Later they turned to stone; they became spirits (suci, fem., suca, male). These people invented the katara. They also made urei (silver cups). The most ancient kind of katara are called juar-dar-katara. There are few of these today. The value of such a dagger would be at least six goats."

On the 27th of Febr.uary, 1968 Brädin of Nisheigrom had this to say about these mysterious craftsmen:

"The Gawar-Kawarna people lived near Tregam. They invented the katara. They made silver cups, tripod tables, tripods, and särätäö (wrought iron stands to support burning pine torches). No one could see where they made these things. When they had made something they would throw it off a high cliff onto the rocks. If the object was not damaged they were satisfied, and they would sell it. If it had been damaged by the fall, they would destroy it. These people disappeared. We don't know what happened to them."

An even more important and more highly-prized object in Nuristani/Kafir culture is the silver wine cup. Lennart Edelberg, who was almost certainly the first European ever to see one (in 1953), has thoroughly discussed the earlier literature on this subject and has presented the results of his own investigations in the field (KUML, 1965). The material which follows should be regarded as a supplement to that publication.

There are two types of urei: those made by spirits and those made by men (which are copies of those made by spirits). A variation of the second type are modem fakes made in Kabul. Of those made by spirits (a-sor-ama-ba-urei or a-sor-ba-ama-urei - my notebooks record both forms) some are silver (urei = 'silver') and some are of gold (sun-urei). As far as we know, the latter no longer exist. According to the Secret & Political records of the Government of India (vide Jones, 1969), Sipah Salar Ghulam Haider Khan, Commander-in-Chief of the Afghan Armies at the time of the Muslim invasion of Kafiristan (1896-98), sent to Amir Abdur Rahman Khan several lots of silver and gold objects which had been looted from Kafir shrines and homes. Among these may have been sun-urei. Presumably kept in the Royal Palace, they would probably have been lost during the brief reign of Bacha Saqao, 'The Brigand Chief', in the confusion of his bid to take over the throne of Afghanistan following the abdication of Amanulla in 1929.

Nearly all the silver cups existing today are mere copies, made by bari crafts­men, of the valuable a-sor-ba-ama-urei ('lake-belonging to-house-silver [cup]') made by spirits. The latter are very rare. Informants in different villages estimated that there might be 'three or four' in the entire valley. The ordinary urei are much more common; most families own one and wealthier families may own two or more. These are kept hidden away as family heirlooms and are never used today except in bridewealth (malpreg) and dowry (bakawa) exchanges.

In pre-Muslim times these wine cups were used in three ways: (1) for men of high rank to drink wine from - usually on the occasion of a feast; (2) in the dowry where an affluent man presented his daughter with an urei to take on her wedding day to her new home, or in bridewealth where an urei is considered to be worth 30 goats toward the required total; (3) in a special celebration called sinara-ta-dul ('rejoicing-place-feast') which honours an individual and involves the public display of an urei.

Usually the family urei is inherited by the son who has not yet married; the idea being that he will need it for his bridewealth. In the Kalashum (i.e., Waigal Valley) the amount of bridewealth required for marriage varies somewhat from village to village. It is not uncommon for an amount of 240 goats to be agreed upon, though it is never given entirely in goats. The total is made up by adding to an agreed number of goats appropriate objects which have a standard value in terms of goats. These may be robes of honour, tripods to hold large pots over the fire, a silver cup, and a tripod table or two. (4)

For bridewealth purposes an urei is always worth thirty goats, no matter what its actual value may be. Ordinary urei (those made by bari smiths) vary in value from 40 to 75 goats, according to weight/size. A man who has been handed an urei for inspection will frequently balance the inverted bowl on his index finger to judge the weight and thus the value, and then, setting it down, may announce: 'fifty goats'.

In pre-Muslim times the type of urei owned by a man was a reflection of his status and the rank he had achieved (5). A man who, according to the number of men he had slain, had attained the warrior rank of batur, could drink his wine from a trewse-dos aba-urei (lit. 'three twenties (and) ten), i.e., one worth 70 goats or 35 goats and 35 kasera (white) rupees (large silver 19th century Afghan coins). A man who had only reached the rank of macmal-oda had to be content with a dusi-ba-urei - one valued at 40 (40 goats or 20 goats and 20 kasera rupees). Other urei were also classed according to value:

50 goat urei: duwisi-dos-osey ('two twenties (and) ten goats').
60 goat urei: trewisi-osey ('three twenties goats')
75 goat urei: trewisi-pacis-osey ('three twenties (and) fifteen goats').

In pre-Muslim times if a man had chosen not to compete for rank either as a warrior or as a giver of feasts he stood very low on the social scale and was referred to as uluma. Such a man could drink wine only from the low-status kuna-urei. This is a plain silver bowl without a stem or handle. Lennart Edelberg first heard of them in 1953: "I Waigal fik jeg omkring den l. oktober 1953 nys om en pokal mere; det var ved nattetide, og jeg erindrer ikke, om jeg selv fik den at se. Den manglede foden." (KUML, 1965, pp. 158-159, my italics). Its very name - kuna-urei - reflects the low esteem in which its uluma owner is held.

In Nuristani culture horns are synonymous with strength. A man who owns many goats and has given public feasts of merit earns the right to have special carvings incised into the door of his house, on the wooden panels adjacent to the door, and on the four columns inside the ama - the main room of the house. Many of these geometric designs are abstract renderings of goat horns and they publicly proclaim the accomplishments and hence the 'strength' of the head of the house. A successful hunter is a respected man and he will decorate the front of his house with the skulls and horns of markhor and urial (never leopard or bear) he has killed, thus announcing to every passerby: 'Here lives a great hunter'. The man of high status owns a silver cup with a 'horn' on it, i.e., a stem or handle. The low-status atrozan (uluma) since he chooses not to compete and does not match his 'strength' against others, should drink his wine from an urei that, symbolically, has no horn. The significance of this is made even more apparent if we examine the term asäkuna (Lit. 'ashes-hornless'). One sometimes hears an angry atrozan use this highly derogatory term against another. Ordinarily the term is used in reference to the brozan or bari-sewala people. It means one without strength or power; 'helpless weakling' is a phrase that might best capture its meaning. lnformants say that in pre-Muslim times if an atrozan became angry with his bari or sewala slave (they were bought and sold occasionally prior to 1895) he might 'pour ashes on his head'. This indignity may even today be forced upon a man who has grossly offended public opinion by some outrageous act (wide Jones, 1974). Thus the kuna-urei is symbolic of the man who has become a failure in life, according to the strict standards of Nuristani culture. It is a status symbol in a negative sense and is probably never used in bridewealth or dowry exchanges.

SINARA-TA-DOL ('rejoicing-place-feast')
Urei can be used in a special public ceremony to honour a man. This ceremony is called sinara-ta-dul. I have not seen this celebration, but informants said that it is still held on occasion in same villages. It was described as follows:

"This is a funeral feast given during a man's lifetime. It is a special honour for him. The feast is prepared by his sister's son. Many goats are sacrificed and the whole village is invited. During the feast there is a flagpole. It is called dal-karinga. A cloth is tied to this to make a flag. On top of the pole an urei is placed. The tip of the wooden pole is pushed up inside the hollow stem of the urei. The sister's son (pasi) ties a cloth round his waist to support the end of the pole. The urei and the flag are high in the air while he dances. Together with his mother's brother's sons he goes round the village. They choose a rooftop and dance on it. The owner of the house should come out and sacrifice a goat for them. If the owner of the house is poor, he will come out and offer cheese to the dancers. When such a funeral feast is given in a man's lifetime, then no feast will be given when he dies."

In February 1967 in Nisheigrom Kazana provided a somewhat fragmentary and abbreviated account of the origin of certain rare urei.

"In the Nur Kun mountains there are people who can control the spirit of the lake. The spirit of the lake is a calf - the calf is the owner of the lake. The man who can summon the spirit of the lake is sor-gurala ('lake-wizard'). When the calf comes out of the lake, the water level goes down; the lake becomes dry. Then the Nur Kun people can go out on the lake bed and collect the treasure. They got much gold and silver from the lake. They got many urei.

"Twelve generations ago there was a shepherd who lived in Wama. He went to a lake above Wama. At the lake he heard many strange noises. There were voices speaking and sounds like thunder. When the noise stopped, the shepherd found an urei with a gold design. He also found a gold torque (gera) and a golden pitcher (zäni/zärne). He took these three things away with him. They were kept in his village for many years. When Sipah Salar (Ghulam Haider Khan) invaded Kafiristan a man named Polan Kan told him of this treasure and the Sipah Salar took them away to Kabul. The Wama people killed Polan Kan for this."

All accounts known to me of such rare and costly urei include references to the fact that they have been made by spirits, are found in lakes, and are equal in value to the life of a man (240 goats). Such urei - as mentioned - are called a-sor-ba-ama-urei. It was these original urei that were copied by bari smiths to produce most of the silver cups known to exist today.

Not all lakes contain treasure. Nurulla Kan of the Kusug dari lineage of Nisheigrom explains:

"There are two kinds of lakes: nasti-sor and wase-sor. Wase is a man who has a son. Nasta is a man who is childless. Some lakes are nasta, they have no power. We can go near to them, though we are afraid. But it is very dangerous to approach a wase-sor because the power of the spirit of the lake will draw a man into the water and he will be drowned. The wase-sor has a sor­ocalä ('lake-calf'). This calf guards the treasure which consists of silver, gold, and iron. There are golden birds, golden urei, chairs and tables made of gold; everything for a house, all in gold" (6).

Bari Din Mohammed gave this account of how one obtained an urei in times past:

"Long ago they went to the lake with 60 white rupees and one goat. They sacrificed the goat and threw its body into the lake. Then they threw the coins into the lake. 'Spirit of the lake,' they called, 'make an urei for me.' A voice would come from the water: 'Man, come after a few days and on the shore you will find a beautiful urei.' When, after some days the men returned they found an urei by the lake. These urei were made by the spirits of the lake. When Sipah Salar came to Nisheigrom he took one sun-urei (golden urei) from an old man of the Sunarat dari (lineage).''

The 'payment' of white rupees (kasera rupai) is an interesting element when considered in light of the fact that a man who commissions a bari smith to make a katara, urei, or baspe must provide the necessary metal in addition to paying for the work. In this context the sacrificed goat may be seen as the payment and the 'white' rupees as providing the silver needed to make the urei.

Mayar, in his characteristically abrupt way, related the following story: (Ni­sheigrom, February 1966)

"There were two sisters of the lake near Waigal village. There were two lakes there. One spoke to the other, saying, 'let us make a plain here near Waigal.' These two spirits lived in the lakes. One of them made Waigal. The other made a mountain flat so that she could sit on it. One lake became dry. Three persons went there: Zhonc cuk, Wai and Drabug. From the lake they took seven sun-urei (golden urei) and two baskets (kawa) full of a-sor-ba-ama­urei (silver urei made by spirits). They also took golden chairs, beds, and all the furniture for a house from the lake. There is now a spring there where the lake was."

On another occasion the same informant related this story:

"There is a lake. Two seers (wrear) went there. The owner of the lake - the spirit - was a calf. The calf made different sounds. These two seers summoned the calf out of the lake. As they did so, the waters of the lake drained away; the lake became dry. They placed the calf on the skin of an animal. One seer told the other, 'hold this calf; keep him wrapped up in the skin while I get the treasure from the lake.' The calf was called sor-ocalä. The seer who was holding the calf wanted the treasure for himself. He thought, 'if I let the calf go, the lake will fill up again.' He did this and the other seer was drowned."

What appears to be another version of this same story was told by Nurulla Kan of the Kusug-dari (Kusug lineage) of Nisheigrom:

"There was a man in Wama named Sambar. He was of the Sawan-dar (lineage). He had many goats, sheep and cows. A shepherd worked for him. One day Sambar went to Mara Sor (Mara, the Creator; the Creator's Lake), a lake above Wama. The shepherd went with him. Sambar had some 'medicine' (magic) from the lake. It was written on a paper, or perhaps he had memorized it. Sambar went into the lake and fought with the calf for six hours. Finally he managed to get the calf out of the lake. He gave it to the shepherd to wrap up in a skin so as to hide it from the light. 'Do not let the sunlight fall on the sor-ocalä', Sambar told the shepherd. When the calf was wrapped up in the skin, the waters of the lake drained away, revealing the treasure. Sambar walked down on to the lake bed to collect it.

"The calf begged the shepherd to open the skin a little. 'Just make a tiny hole in the skin so that I can see the light', it pleaded. Finally, thinking that it would do no harm, the shepherd took a needle and made a small hole in the skin sack. At this time Sambar was far down in the lake bed collecting the treasure. When the shepherd let the sunlight in, the lake suddenly filled up again and, at the same time, the shepherd was drawn into the water and drowned. But Sambar had time to say the magic words and escaped from the lake.

"When he saw that there was nothing he could do to save his shepherd, he went down the mountain to the sal (saeter) and told the others what had happened. The shepherd's sister heard that her brother had died in the lake. She was suspicious of Sambar. 'You have killed my brother and you make up this story to hide your guilt,' she said.

"One day, a year later, the sister went to a spring in Wama to fetch water. When she lifted her jar out of the spring she suddenly saw her brother's katara and belt lying in the pool. Then she knew that Sambar was telling the truth, because the water in that spring comes from the Mara Sor. She reached down and took the katara and belt from the water.

"When she told Sambar what had happened he gave her 60 goats and said, 'you were angry with me before. Your brother was my shepherd and he lost his life when he was with me. Now you know the truth."

Near Nisheigrom there is a waterfall named after Astan, son of Demuta. The waterfall there used to be an urei. Astan had placed it there so that the women could fill their water jars. The urei was in the water; the place is called Astan-usalok.

Mayar gives the foliowing account of a pre-Muslim shrine where captured weapons and treasure were kept at Nisheigrom:

"In the Kafir time the man responsible for the shrine at dinastun (a great rock in the village) was named Grosera. He was from the Utai-dari (lineage). He was the Uta (priest or religious leader). Another Uta was Sastari of the Latundari, but the man in charge of the shrine at dinastun was Grosera. Borug-uta was the name of the house where Sastari lived. He was in charge of all the captured weapons. They were kept in a house on the rock. There were also sun-urei there, but the Sipah Salar took them away."

Earlier I mentioned that in addition to urei made by spirits and those made by bari craftsmen, there is a third category consisting of spurious wine cups which have been made in the Kabul bazaar. This seems to have come about because of a shortage of urei. Lennart Edelberg writes of hearing as early as 1954 that urei were sometimes cut up to make bracelets (Edelberg, 1965). In 1966 and 1967 I also heard that they were occasionally used as a source of silver to make jewelry. I have a pair of Kalashum earrings which are said to have been made in this way. The urei which is shown in Fig. 9 has had approximately 3 cm cut away from the bottom part of the stem, apparently by someone who needed a quantity of silver (perhaps to make the earrings which I have!). In 1969 I was approached by youths in Kegal who tried to sell me an urei, apparently because they were in debt. The point is that there is a year by year decline in the number of urei. No bari smith now living knows how to make them and yet the demand for silver cups continues, as they are still usually considered an essential part of bridewealth and dowry exchanges. This had led to a few being manufactured in Kabul. How many, is not known. I have seen one (Fig. 10) and have heard of one other. Only a brief examination is required to detect these counterfeits as, unlike real urei, the bowl has been cast in a mould. Ordinary urei are always hand planished silver, they are never cast. These Kabul fakes are, moreover, evidently made from melted down jewelry and have a low silver content. The handle or stem on the specimen I examined had been planished out of silver, though it was markedly thicker in shape and less graceful in line than those on other urei I have seen (e.g. Fig. 11). The stem on the urei in Fig. 10 was attached to the bowl by soldering rather than by silver rivets, which is unusual, but it was the bowl that was wrong. Imperfections in the casting process were all too evident; small air bubbles the size of pin heads were numerous, giving the surface a slightly pitted appearance.

My interest in urei and their myths of origin had led me (in 1966) to a meeting with a young man who was said to own an a-sor-ba-ama-urei - a silver cup made by spirits and worth 'the price of a man'. He told me something about the wine cup; how he had inherited it from his father, though he had been so young at the time of his father's death that relatives had kept his inheritance for him. He had only recently come into possession of his property. The young man promised to show me the famous urei and eventually, after a week or two, it was brought to the place where I was staying late one night. This is the urei shown in Fig. 10. My first impression was surprise, for it was somewhat smaller than ordinary urei. If anything, I had expected it to be larger. With no light to examine it by except that from a small paraffin lamp, it was a minute or two before it became apparent that the bowl had been cast in a mould. Examination of this specimen the next day in sunlight also revealed that it had an unaturally dull metallic colour which appeared lifeless in comparison with ordinary urei. When these details were pointed out to the young man he realized that someone had taken his a-sor-ba-ama-urei and substituted for it this spurious product of the Kabul bazaar. He called a meeting of friends and agnates to discuss what might be done. The case was complicated. The person who had taken care of the young man's inheritance until he was old enough to take possession of it was an important elder who was rumoured to have had two urei made by a Kabul silversmith. Those who had been witnesses at the time the inheritance was originally divided some 20 years earlier, were now dead. No one could say whether this was or was not the famous urei, particularly since these heirlooms are invariably kept hidden away and are not seen from one year to the next. Everyone in the village knew about the urei; hardly anyone had ever seen it. Witnesses: none. Evidence: circumstantial. The young man was not in a position to identify his father's costly urei even if it had been placed before him. There the case rests. It would be interesting to know if the bowl on this curious specimen has been cast from a mould of the real urei 'made by spirits'. If it has, we at least know what such a silver cup looks like and how it was decorated (Fig. 10).

THE MAGIC CHAIN (mac-ke-zanzir)
Like urei made by spirits, these chains are said to be very rare. I have seen one (Fig. 12) and have been told of another. The chain shown in Fig. 12 was photographed in 'Demuta's house' which is a kantar-kot in Sunarat-cem, Nisheigrom. The chain is made of wrought iron, each double link being some I 2 cm long. There are approximately 75 links altogether. The chain is between 8 and 9 meters long. This is from memory, assisted by the photograph; my notebooks from 1967-68 do not give detailed measurements. The chain terminates with a heavy collar attachment at one end. In 1967 and 1968 the chain was lying in the corner immediately to the left as one entered the kantar-kot (7). The house itself was not lived in and had not been occupied for many years; the door was kept locked with a chain and padlock. Two other objects were in the room at the time of my first visit: 'Demuta's helmet' (vide Jones 1972) and a large särätäö which stood four or five feet high and consisted of a score or more of twisted wrought iron rods supporting a rectangular metal platform designed to hold burning pine torches.

Unlike the other objects, the chain was considered to have special super­natural qualities; most of the people present when I was taken to see it not only refused to enter the room where it was kept, but they left in a hurry when the chain was taken out of its corner so that it could be photographed in the light of the doorway. It was said that in pre-Muslim times this chain was used to secure prisoners and that no one survived the experience. The most dramatic manifestation of its supernatural power, however, lies in the fact that it had or has a voice and could alert the villagers of an enemy attack by calling out a warning. The last occasion on which it spoke was on the day when the present owner's father died. This cry was heard by several villagers.

The chain, although rusty and lying in a deserted house, was obviously regarded with great respect. The circumstances surrounding the chain recalled to mind this account from Robertson:

"Close by the temple, in a house in the village [Kamdesh], there is a miraculous iron bar placed in its present position by Imra himself. Its guardians conducted me with some reluctance into the apartment where the bar was said to be buried under a heap of juniper-cedar branches. The proprietor of the house, a great and holy man, seemed greatly relieved on finding that I listened to all he had to say about this iron pillar, and yet showed no inclination to verify his statements by searching the heap of branches." (The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush, pp. 393-394).

In 1970 when revisiting the house in Nisheigrom we found that the chain was gone and were told that it had been taken to another house. According to Mohammed Alam there is a similar chain with similar powers in Muldesh. Both chains were originally kept in Nisheigrom but some years ago one was removed to the house of Abdul Mohammed, Malik of Muldesh, and there it has remained since. These chains are known as mac-ke-zanzir, i.e., the chain that has mac or macmal. In pre-Muslim times a warrior who had distinguished himself in battle might achieve the rank of macmal-oda as an indication of his strength or prowess. So it is with the chain, for it too has killed the enemy. The word zanzir is from the Farsi loanword zanjir, chain.

In effect, by exploring the beliefs that surround certain items of material culture, we have moved from the everyday world into a time and space where supernatural events occur. Or have we? It may be argued that in Nuristan supernatural events do not occur in a world that is somehow different from the every-day world, rather they occur in certain known, fixed places in the everyday world (certain lakes, for example). Thus they can be avoided; one is not in danger of stumbling upon such places unprepared. They appear as islands in a sea of normality. But this simplified view is complicated by the fact that supernatural beings are free to wander about, though one is more likely to encounter them in some places than in others. These beings are of two sorts: suca (fem. suci) and Yus. Suca are handsome beings that may be encountered during day or night (8). The places they frequent are well known as they tend to keep to certain paths when passing through a village. In Nishei­grom they are most likely to be seen at Teramanasüg and Wat-karug. The second place is a stone where animals were sacrificed in pre-Muslim times. To meet these beings is an alarming experience as their behaviour is so unpredictable; they are both mischievous and capricious. Some of my informants related that they had been seized by suca and carried away to distant mountaintops where for two or three days they became unwilling guests at a suca feast. Sometimes they were swiftly returned home; on other occasions they had to escape and find their own way back. Such misadventures are most likely to occur in spring or autumn, when supernatural beings are most active. At these seasons the bravest and most aggressive men will not go near certain places in the mountains (Adrug, for example), for to do so is to invite the wrath of these beings. If the shouted threats of suca (in various languages) do not deter the intruder, they will send down a shower of stones accompanied by the occasional boulder. In autumn - the time when most marriages take place - suci are sometimes seen carrying bridewealth or dowry along mountain trails.

In the summer of 1970 when speaking with one informant about these beings, I asked him what they looked like. "They look like her," he said, pointing to my daughter. From weeks in the open, her face was sunburned and her fair hair was bleached almost white by the sun.

Yus, unlike suca, are truculent and malevolent and to be avoided at all costs. They live in certain trees and are red in colour. In Waigal Valley Yus are described as giants; one informant estimated that they were about 3 meters high. He had seen one step across a river in a single stride.

In the Bashgal Valley Robertson recorded this account of the Yus: "The demons and their chief, Yush, are rather dubious spirits. In discussing Yush with some of my Kafir friends one day, it seemed to me that they had some reluctance in describing his appearance. As the thought occured to me I inquired, "Is he like me?" "Oh, no," was the diplomatic reply, "he is not like you; he is like the private English soldiers Shermalik saw in India." From this I discovered that Yush is red in colour." (The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush, p. 413).

Robertson's informants clearly associated iron with the devil or with demons. There was supposed to be an iron bridge in Kashmir made out of the body of a devil. lron was thought to exist in some countries and not others, depending upon whether or not the Creator had thrown a devil made of iron there (ibid. p.386)(9).

In the Kalashum we have seen that iron is considered treasure along with gold and silver. There is also a special relationship between gold, silver, and iron, and those who have the skills to obtain or work these metals. The craftsmen of Gawar-Kawarna were not only highly skilled, they maintained an extreme exclusiveness prior to their disappearance. This exclusiveness is perhaps reflected today in the negative sanctions which limit contact between bari and atrozan. Even today a bari smith may be credited with extraordinary capabilities, and may be considered to have the powers of a seer (ninala/wrear) or a wizard (gurala). The implication is that a man who is able to work metal is also able to control other less tangible but more powerful forces.


1. There are two kinds of katara: those made by mysterious craftsmen and those made by bari smiths.

2. There are two kinds of urei: those made by spirits and those made by bari smiths.

3. There are two kinds of lakes: those with a spirit and those without.

4. There are two kinds of supernatural beings that one might encounter: suca and yus.

5. There are two kinds of time/space: those in which one is likely to encounter supernatural beings and those where one is unlikely to encounter them. Analogy: it is safe to walk along the railway line except when a train is due. So it is safe to wander in Adrug except on or about the Vernal Equinox. Other potentially dangerous places are more analogous to a motor road: one does not walk down the middle of a highway, even though there may be no cars in sight, because one may come at any moment.

Schuyler Jones





Jones, S. (1973). Dolke, pokaler og magiske søer i Nuristan. Kuml, 23(23), 231–264. Hentet fra