Kafiristan or Kafirstan is normally taken to mean “land of the kafirs” in Persian language, where the name kafir is derived from the Arabic kaafer, literally meaning a person who refuses to accept a principle of any nature and figuratively. Kafiristan was inhabited by people who followed a form of ancient Hinduism, before large numbers were forced into Islam in the 1890s.
The word “kafir” has also been suggested to be linked to Kapiś (= Kapish), the ancient Sanskrit name of the region that included historic Kafiristan.
The Kalasha or Kalash, are a Dardic indigenous people residing in the Chitral District of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. They speak the Kalasha language, from the Dardic family of the Indo-Aryan branch. They are considered unique among the peoples of Pakistan. They are also considered to be Pakistan’s smallest ethnoreligious community, practising a religion which some scholars characterise as a form of animism, and other academics as “a form of ancient Hinduism”.
Ancient Kapiśa janapada, located south-east of the Hindukush, included and is related to Kafiristan. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang who visited Kapisa in 644 AD calls it Kai-pi-shi(h). Xuanzang describes Kai-pi-shias a flourishing kingdom ruled by a Buddhist kshatriya king holding sway over ten neighbouring states, including Lampaka, Nagarahara, Gandhara and Bannu. Until the 9th century AD, Kapiśi remained the second capital of the Shahi dynasty of Kabul. Kapiśa was known for goats and their skin. Xuanzang talks of Shen breed of horses from Kapiśa (Kai-pi-shi). There is also a reference to Chinese emperor Taizong being presented with excellent breed of horses in 637 AD by an envoy from Chi-pin (Kapisa). Further evidence from Xuanzang shows that Kai-pi-shi produced all kind of cereals, many kinds of fruits, and a scented root called yu-kin, probably of the grass khus, or vetiver. The people used woollen and fur clothes and gold, silver and copper coins. Objects of merchandise from all parts were found here.
The people of Kafiristan had paid tribute to the Mehtar of Chitral and accepted his suzerainty. This came to an end with the Durand Agreement when Kafiristan fell under the Afghan sphere of Influence. Recently, the Kalash have been able to stop their demographic and cultural spiral towards extinction and have, for the past 30 years, been on the rebound. Increased international awareness, a more tolerant government, and monetary assistance has allowed them to continue their way of life. Their numbers remain stable at around 3,000. Although many convert to Islam, the high birth rate replaces them, and with medical facilities (previously there were none) they live longer.