Roaming their World: The Roma


By Annesha Das Gupta

You have heard of them. You have formed an opinion of your very own about them. Then you forgot them.

To you, they are the nomads, the ‘Gypsies’. They are in numerous tales ‘deceiving’ people, holder of amazing powers a tribe of mystic beings.

Aren’t they, though? Well, not.

They are actually known as the Roma or Romani. And no, they are not what the larger part of the world has made of them. They are people just like you and I, they have a history that remained unwritten for centuries, their cultures ignored and their agonies, forgotten.

However, according to Mark D Knudsen, to give it a more academic touch, the Roma never exhibited any of the typical nomadic behavior. They were coerced to move from one region to another throughout their entire historical timeline, either because of banishment, flight, trade or else the maintenance of social and familial structures.

Unfortunately, even in the contemporary era much has not changed for them.

So how are they now? What is their history? And who in actuality are they?

Chronology of Migration of Gypsies or The Roma from India to the world
Chronology of Migration of Gypsies or The Roma from India to the world

Let’s read on.

Who are the Roma?

The Roma or Romani are the people who according to the majority of historians and archeologists, originated from the northwestern regions of India; particularly Rajasthan, current Haryana, and Punjab.

They speak a mixed variation of languages which has influenced the Romani dialects, sometimes known as Para-Roman.

They are currently spread across many parts of the world especially in the Balkan Peninsula and other countries of Europe. And they comprise the largest ethnic minority in the latter one.

Historically, romanis have been misunderstood everywhere and thus subjected to a lot of prejudices. A noticeable example can be found in the epic Persian poem of Shahnameh. It goes that the Sasanian king, Bahram V Gor, upon learning at the end of his reign that the poor of his kingdom cannot afford to listen to music, he requested the king of India to send him ten thousand Luris, men and women who play lute. After they came to his empire, the king gifted them an ox each, a donkey and a donkey-load of wheat. He wanted them to have a life of a farmer and that they entertain the poor for free. Unfortunately, the luris ate up the oxen and the wheat. This angered the king and he banished the tribe forever.

Such fables elucidate how painful a life the Roma had to endure and how stereotyped their image has been.

In different parts of the world they are known by different names; such as Manus in France, Tatara in Sweden and Gypsies in the UK, which bore a negative connotation for them. They were given the name of ‘Gypsy’ in the 16th century as there was a wide-spread misconception that the group originated from Egypt.

Linking the Roma: India to Europe

  • India

As stated by Knudsen in his blog, Roma History, in the 11th century, India had several smaller kingdoms in Northern India where the Gujjars and the Rajput confederations used to rule. These were primarily feudal societies comprising of warriors, landowner castes, and the commoners. The Roma were then believed to be known as Domba which means human and gradually evolved into the names known today as Rom (man) and Romni (woman). They, as claimed by a lot of historians, belonged to the lower castes who used to hold the occupations of the peasantry, mainly caring for animals, training horses, craftsmen – makers of weapons.

It is worth noticing as well that in Sanskrit Doma means ‘man of low caste living by singing and music’. Thus confirming their presence, in the pages, of Shahnameh.

They were granted the status of warrior class mercenaries by the Hindus and were recruited into the army who were sent westwards to fight off the Islamic military expansions. And during this time, they were captured by Mahmud of Ghazna as slaves. The Sultan got hold over 500,000 Roma from the regions of Punjab and Sindh during his raids to India which continued for almost 17 years.

The atrocities committed, can be illustrated by what has been claimed recently by the historians: The Muslim conquerors took the Roma and forced them to march across the heavy mountain terrains of Central Asia- thus calling the ranges as the Hindu Kush or the slaughter of Hindus.

The Roma got their freedom even if it was scarce by joining one of the Arabic emirates known as the ‘Rum-Seldchuks’ after the breakup of the Ghaznadian dynasty. They escaped slavery by changing their religion to that of Islam as the Muslims did not take Islamic slaves.

Later the emirate was invaded by Ottoman I creating his empire and that was the last stop for Romas before moving on to Europe.

  • Europe

Romani or Gypsies, as they were called was not very popular there. In most of the European countries, Romani were considered as unwanted emigrants. They were believed to be barbarians and totally untrustworthy. Such were the image of them that they were usually chased out of the places if they were seen traveling around in their mobile homes. It is well-known that they were outlawed in Denmark from 1554 to 1736.

Some DNA evidence also suggests that a few of them arrived in Europe in the mid 11th century due to the Viking enslavement or liaisons with Varangians as found in the skeletons of Norwich.

A chronicler for a Parisian journal described them as shabbily dressed and reported that the Church forced them to leave the town as it was believed that they practiced palm-reading and fortune-telling.

Earlier in 1510, Switzerland ordered for their execution and similar laws were also established in Britain. Whereas in Sweden large masses were deported outside the country to its colonies in 1538.

Historical Amnesia: Romani Holocaust

According to historian Ian Hancock, a Romani scholar, linguist and political advocate, German Wehrmacht swept into the Balkans on its quest to conquer Eastern Europe and imposed Hilter’s genocidal policies of Aryan racial impurity on them.

The Romani genocide or Romani Holocaust, also named as ‘O Porajmos’ or ‘the devouring’ was an attempt by the Nazi troops to annihilate the Romani of Europe during the Second World War. Both Romani and Jews were executed as “enemies of the raced-based state” under the Nuremberg laws.

Estimated death tolls of the Romani people ranged from 220,000 to 1,500,000 during the whole period of the Nazi rule.

When the Nazis were defeated in 1945, the world came to know about the heinous acts that were performed against the Jews. But the Romani and the Sinti went unmentioned despite the fact that they went through the similar fate of being brutally treated, of exploiting them as slave laborers and being murdered in the gas chambers.

Unfortunately, it was as late as 2nd August 1981 that West Germany finally agreed to recognize the genocide of the Roma.

The Roma and their presence: The Present

The international Day of the Roma is celebrated in the honor of the first international meeting of Romani representations which took place on 8th April 1971 near London.

The international anthem of the Roma was adopted in 1990. It is known as ‘Gelem Gelem’ which was composed and written by a Romany musician and politician named Zarko Jovanovic who now lives in Paris but originally was from Beograd. It should also be known that the anthem of Czech and Sloval Romanies is named ‘Chajori Romani’ and was composed in the concentration camp of Auschwitz.

Whereas the Romani flag consists of two strips, the lower green strip symbolizes the unity of the Roma with nature while the upper blue one with the heaven. The wheel in the centre, suggest the migratory image of the Romanies and has its roots in the Indian red chakra wheel.

Coming to India again – Though the Roma now mainly belong to Islam or Christianity, their social behavior is strictly regulated by Hindu Purity Laws. Also to further connect them with India, one should know that the mitochondrial DNA (the genetic formulation in Indians), is found in about 30% of the population.

In 1782, Rudiger found a massive amount of similarities, between the Romani language and Hindustani.

The Roma who take pride of their roots in India wanted the world to recognize them as one of the official Indian diasporas.

In a recent event held at New Delhi, Joval Damjonvoic, president of World Roma Organization said that they are the indigenous people of India. Roma are traced by many scholars to India; they use the same words as those by the Indians and want the country to accept them as their diaspora and give them a nationality.

The World Bank also took the effort to integrating the Roma youth, who comprised 10-20% of the new labor in Eastern European countries into the mainstream discourse by addressing their social and economic conditions. And in this, they partnered with foundations like UNDP, UNICEF, and REF.

There has been the inauguration of a Romanian studies summer institute at the Central European University and the establishment of the European Roma Institute.

Still there remain the incidents of sterilization of Roma women and the attack on seven Roma families in Ukraine all over in the same weekend. Also, there has been a continuous deportation of the community from slums in Paris which left most of them homeless.

All these points exclaim that there needs much to be done to build a more Roma inclusive world so that people can voice their opinion and start to take a stand for the rights of the Roma.

After all, they are just like us, just like any other human being who has right to live.