By- Annesha Das Gupta
The community of Roma has been cited by various scholars and historian as a group of people who are most definitely part of the Indian diaspora. They appear to have left the country back in the 11th century as a result of the raids by Mahmud of Ghazna and through various historical occurrences landed in Europe and various other parts of the world.
Hence, in the process, they have been able to imbibe various non-Roma customs and societal norms. While they have kept many similarities of the Indian cultural sphere, there has been diversification of the socio-economic and political structures as well.
In this article, we shall span through and cover up a brief look at their cultural phenomena, which may surprise as well as please one. Though, it should be kept in mind, the importance of cultural relativism (understanding and due respect to other cultures), as Sociology points out, one of the tools to stem the proliferation of ethno-centrism.
So, let’s get started.
Structure and Roma society
Image Courtesy: Gvsph Org
The family structure in the community is traditionally weaved together around the group of close kin and forming a single household. The extended family comes together, to make up anywhere from a few to a few hundred members and are known as Kumpanias. These bands generally travel together, in the past in caravans and presently in their own cars.
The group or the family elects one permanent chief called Voivode, who leads the entire band. While there may also a woman named Phuri dai, who will take the responsibility of looking after the women and the children in the community.
The family will always share their resources, organize the work together as well as prepare and consume the food only when everyone is around. The group generally consist the head and his wife, their married sons, and daughter-in-laws with their own children, it can also have the bachelor sons and spinster daughter, as well as divorced and widowed daughters.
The ethnic group or ‘nation’ may form smaller bands, Vistas, with regard to their common ancestry.
The family will derive their names from the traditional or historical trades they practice. They can also claim their titles on the basis of the region of settlement or the religion to which they may belong.
Both women and men take care of their household. It is known that both the parents contribute in bringing up their children together. Though, because of the work pattern, the child may mostly spend hers/his hours with their grandparents, the parents can be busy running their business like selling cars or clothes and similar items.
The weddings in the Roma community mainly took place as a form of endogamy, as it is deeply believed to be essential for maintaining the purity of the tribe or the group. The decision is taken by the family members of the bride and the groom along with the negotiation of the bride price. To marry a female outsider or a gadji, maybe not at first accepted by the people but sometimes can eventually be sorted out. While the female members of the community are strictly forbidden under the Marime (impure) laws to do the same, as they are perceived as continuers and guarantors of their population.
Bride price is taken by the girl’s family as a form of compensation for their loss. A formal proposal of marriage comes from the boy’s side and then the discussion takes place with the soon-to-be bride’s father. The bride’s price is negotiated by taking into consideration all the desired qualities of the girl. The amount of the price is fixed based on the merits of the girl such as strength, disposition, and domestic skills. The refusal of the formal proposal is highly considered to be a disgrace to the community.
‘Abiav’, as the wedding is called, is preferred to as a symbolic act rather than a religious one. Though the Roma do not take into account the importance of a formal wedding ceremony, the observations are changing now based on the regions they have settled in and civil and religious marriages are becoming more common.
Among certain Roma tribes, bread is taken by the groom and the bride with a drop of blood in it, which they exchange with each other. Whereas according to another rite, the couple is surrounded by their close ones and a small amount of salt and bread is applied to the knees of the bride. The groom takes some of it and eats, while the bride, also does the same. The ritual symbolizes the harmonious future of the couple together.
In the past, the community did not hold believes in any form of organized religion. Though with time they have accepted and opted for religions like Islam and Christianity. They observe various religious rituals in their houses. Pilgrimages are also taken by them, such the annual pilgrimage to Saintes Maries dela Mar (24-26 May) on the Mediterranean coast of France Sainte Anne de Beaupre (July 26) in Quebec, Canada. These occasions are also considered to be social gatherings by the Roma.
One of the essential aspects of the community is the cult of dead. It is maintained by them, to be a duty to attend the burials of other members, even if they are not personally acquainted with deceased or their close family members. To give the due respect to their deceased, it is an obligatory part to observe or watch them, if possible for as long as before the funeral, in their own house. They believe it that they should keep the dead person among them and in their homes to signify the strong bond they all share.
Both the women as well as the men have tasks and responsibilities to perform both inside and outside their households. Women are usually the in charge of preparing the food and maintaining the house. While the men take charge of the production of tools such as baskets and copperware which is sold to the customers. They will both entertain and perform within the household and outside. Women are mainly the professional storytellers, singers and dancers, whereas the men only tend to play musical instruments.
Women also work in trades, as professional healers and fortune-tellers known as drabardi. And the men work as sale persons of cars, carpets as well as musical instruments. The men can also occupy the positions of collectors of scrap materials for recycling, construction laborers, etc.
Image Courtesy: Bpaimages/Photoshelter
Based on the Marime code, the parts of the women body are divided into pure and polluted. The upper part from the waist is believed to be hygienic while the lower part is not. The conception is mainly attached with the menstrual cycle. And for this, women have to cover their legs with long skirts. The exposure of their legs is considered to be a grave offense. The skirts wore by the women are all long, brightly colored and contains many layers. The new bride is helped by her mother-in-law to knot around her head a scarf, or diklo, which a married woman is supposed to wear throughout her life, afterward.
In the case of men, as the head is considered to be the focal point, they usually cover it with a hat and a wide mustache. For special occasions, they wear good suits which will be brightly colored. They tend to keep it until it absolutely fades. Though in the modern times, they normally wear the clothes in which they cannot be distinguished from the outsiders.
Based on their nomadic way of life, they readily make use of whatever was available to eat – berries, fruits, small mammals, etc. In the present times, they have adapted to the lifestyles of the non-Romanies as well.
They usually begin their day with a strong cup of black coffee, which will, of course, be heavily sugared. Since coffee is considered to be a staple drink among them it might be taken many times in a particular day. The community, do not maintain a schedule for lunch. The food is always put up on the stove as people can serve themselves whenever they feel hungry. Dinner gets started around the time of the sunset. It consists of generally a stew, where a lot of vegetables, leafy greens, potatoes, rice, and paste is added. Garlic is used as the most common seasoning. Sometimes meat of rabbit or game fowl is also cooked or boiled on the spit.
Maize cakes can also be used instead of bread. Whereas, during festivities, a large and sumptuous quantity of food and drinks are prepared with lots of time and enthusiasm.
Their customs, although, prohibits cruelty against animals and asserts that they should be killed as a source of food. The German Sintis considers consumption of horse flesh, as a taboo. As an itinerant lifestyle was lived by them, horses are respected as supporters in their journeys.
All these give us a food for thought to contemplate and gauge the wonderful facets of the Roma culture. While some of the misogynist aspects of the tradition should be done away with, there are also some extraordinary examples of how much the people of this world and can learn and be inspired by their traditions and customs.
Thus, it demands a more astute study and social uplift of the lives and socio-economic standards of the Romanies.