Wooden effigy depicting a horseman wearing a conical head-dress and carrying a dagger, a hand-gun with a carridge-belt and a shield on his back.
from Nuristan, northeast Afghanistan
National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul

The Mara temple in Kushteki in the valley�s center, was by far the largest religious building in Kafiristan (today's Nuristan). It attracted pilgrims from all over the region wanting to perform animal sacrifices in the god�s name. In addition, smaller temples, shrines, and clan-temples (amol) existed everywhere. Free-standing effigies of them served as cult figures set up and dressed up for the cultic occasion. They were shown seated on goats or stools, but the supreme deity, Mara, was represented on horseback. Most of the posts inside the amol also showed figures of deities.

The expressive wooden figures were meaningful in a social context. They symbolized social status of prominent individuals or represented deities. A mounted horseman seated on a twin-headed animal represented the highest status achievable for a tribe member and was earned either by throwing lavish feasts to at least one village or by becoming a successful assassin. The ancestral figures (gandau) were raised after death and placed in a group on the outer perimeter of the burial ground, where coffins were left unburied

The skill of woodcarving lay exclusively in the hands of the bari, the lowest ranking artisan caste of the Kafirs. Smaller effigies (kundik) would be raised in the fields where a symbolic figure of a standing, seated or mounted ancestor could watch over and protect the crops of his descendants from the high position, perched in a simple construction of stone and timber. Although Kafir culture was strongly dominated by men, women also could gain high social rank and be depicted seated or standing after death.

Until the winter of 1895/96 the population of Nuristan still preserved its old culture with roots in the very distant, pre-Christian, past. The people had succeeded in holding on to their ancient beliefs and �primitive� traditions while surrounded by a hostile Islamic world until the end of the 19th century.

The presence of pre-Islamic cultures, with a population reputed to be �savage idolaters,� amid the Islamic world was brought to a dramatic end when the Afghan Amir ?Abd-al-Ra?man sent his army into the region in 1895 with the task of destroying the old religion and substituting Islam for it.

The temples, shrines, and cult places with their wooden effigies and multitudes of ancestor figures went up in flames, and only a few effigies were saved as trophies. (More than thirty such wooden figures were brought to Kabul in 1896 or shortly thereafter, fourteen of which went to the Kabul Museum and four to the Mus�e Guimet and the Mus�e de l�Homme in Paris). After the destruction that accompanied Islamization, decades of massive sales to antique dealers, and the deliberate discarding of items (mainly house posts), only a few of these examples of the impressive Kafir material culture have survived in place.

The collection was restored after being smashed by the Taliban.


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