A NEW LOOK AT OUR ROMANI ORIGINS AND DIASPORA
By Ronald Lee
© Ronald Lee, 2009, all rights reserved
“Until lions have historians,
Stories of the hunt
Shall always glorify the hunters.’’
– African proverb
The Mystery People and the Pseudo-Egyptians
For almost five-hundred years after we Romani people appeared in Europe in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Europeans were asking where we had come from. By then, we ourselves had forgotten our origins in North-Central India although in 1422 some Romani newcomers did tell Italians in Forli, Italy, who asked them where they had come from, that their original homeland was in India. (Muratori, 1731, Vol X1X: 890) This remained buried in the archives until recently (Informaciako Lil 7-9, 1992). Our Indian origin only started to become known in the latter 18th century among a select group of scholars such as pioneer Heinrich Grellman. It then slowly spread through what came to be known as “Gypsy Studies” in the latter 19th and the 20th centuries when it became monopolized by the British Gypsy Lore Society (GLS), a fluctuating group of Victorian paternalistic racists founded in 1888 and an offshoot of the contemporary Orientalists. Their Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, a mixture of academic scholarship of the era and the literary meanderings of wealthy eccentrics and dilettantes, soon became the main source of information on the Romani people, albeit those mainly located in Britain, then the tip of the Romani demographic iceberg at that period in time, for the erudite. Thus, by the latter 19th century, the stage was set for us to be misdefined and stereotyped by outsiders. This was ably catered to by a series of armchair scribblers who penned a never-ending series of romantic novels about the Gypsies they had never met and which soon became the main source of information for the less erudite until largely bumped from this role by movies such as Golden Earrings and Hot Blood and later, by the prime-time idiot box. In the latter 20th century after the death of venerable pundit Dora Yates in 1974 at the age of 95, the old, toothless and moribund GLS was gradually metamorphosed by the rising academic Young Turks of Neolorist Gypsy Studies into what is now called the “Non-Romani Gypsy Industry” by Romani activists.
Despite the fact that our Indian origin has now proven beyond question, even today (2009), in the age of the Internet, there is still a widespread and totally erroneous belief that we originated in Egypt! I recently saw a children’s book which shows the sphinx, pyramids, pharaohs, camels and carved and decorated English Romani vardo (caravan) with an English Romanichel sitting on the caravan steps and dutifully whittling wooden clothes pegs in some secluded English dingle à la George Borrow and the romantic novelists, which stated ‘authoritatively’ that the “The Gypsies came from Egypt.” How did this kind of mythology get started?
Because dark-skinned people from the Middle-East had been brought to Europe by the Venetians and other entrepreneurs to perform as acrobats, jugglers, musicians and dancers, before the arrival of the Romani people, and because these earlier visitors were loosely called “Egyptians” because they had come from the Egyptian Mamaluke Empire in the Middle East, the Roma too were identified as “Egyptians” which in English, was later shortened to “Gypsian,” and finally “Gypsy.” Other Romani groups had come to central and eastern Europe from a region in the Greek Peloponnesus called “Little Egypt” where they were referred to as Romiti in the 15th century along with others who had migrated from Anatolia in what is now Turkey. Both of these regions were known as Kleine Aegypter in German which means “Little Egypt” or “Egypt Minor.” There is also evidence that these early Roma in Europe used an economic stratagem through which by claiming to be Egyptian penitents on a pilgrimage of atonement, they could receive alms from almoners in the churches, since it was common practice for the church to dispense alms to pilgrims and penitents who were on a religious quest or journey. Some of the incoming Romani groups had probably adopted this strategem in the Byzantine Empire where there were wandering groups of genuine Egyptian Christian (Coptic) refugees who had fled the Muslim invasions and upheavals in Egypt itself. In Byzantium itself, Roma had earlier been wrongly defined as Athinganoi or Atsingani, a Greek term which means “not to be touched” and which actually referred to an earlier sect of Persian mystics who had fled the Arab conquest of Persia in the 8th century CE. This term was then adopted by many European languages in various forms such as Cigani to define the Romani people. Another term in use in Greece and the Balkans was Gyifti/Gupti/Kibti which refers to Copt or Egyptian.
Recent studies conducted by Indian scholars in India and by Romani and non-Romani scholars in Europe have finally shattered the Egyptian myth and confirmed the origins of the Romani people in India. Contemporary writings by Firdawsi. a Persian scribe at the court of Mahmud Ghazni and other chroniclers of this era, prove beyond doubt that we originated in India but were not one specific group of Indians, not all of one caste and not even one people. In the 11th century CE there was a group of petty kingdoms in Gurjara in the Northwest area of India in what was then the Rajput Confederacy. These were feudal-type societies composed of a caste of warrior-landowners (Kshatriya) and a supporting population of non-warriors composed of Vaysas, workers and artisans who did all the grunt work for the ruling warrior caste and the Brahmins. Some were farmers growing crops and working with animals Others were metal smiths, entertainers, craftspeople, silver smiths, gold smiths or laundry men and women, in other words, all the people needed to maintain a working society to support their idle rich.
Each family and clan of the sub-castes had a trade or profession (jati) which was practiced by the men of the family and the clan as a whole. This was part of the Hindu religion called the Laws of Manu where everyone belonged to a particular caste and a jati within the caste which performed a specific function or did a particular type of work. This is how the Roma in Europe were subdivided in the past. Each family and clan had a work skill which was passed on from one generation to the next such as music, horse-trading, brick making, blacksmithing or whatever. It seems likely that some groups in the original supporting population belonged to a collection of people called Domba in the plural (singular Dom ‘man,’) which then meant, “The People” or “Human Beings.” Each of these small Rajput kingdoms was ruled by a thakur, or petty king and collectively, the kings served an elected king who was the supreme ruler. Thakur in its variant form of thagar exists in Romani in some dialects today meaning ‘ king’ or ‘leader.’
Mahmud Ghazni and The Romani Diaspora
In the early 11th Century CE, after overthrowing the ruling Arab Caliphate in the late 10th century, a Turkish-Muslim dynasty arose in what is now Afghanistan called the Ghaznavid Empire Once established, these Ghaznavids began raiding into India under their leader Mahmud Ghazni at the beginning of the 11th century CE and came into direct conflict with the Rajput Confederacy. Until 1192, there was constant warfare, looting, destruction of towns and cities and disruption of the Rajput territories. These incursions began around the beginning of the 11th century CE under Mahmud Ghazni. His annual invasions (weather permitting) into the kingdoms of north-central India, resulted in looting and destruction of temples, capture of slaves and devastating of the countryside. After their subjugation, he allowed these kingdoms to exist as vassal states under treaties which also demanded they pay an annual tribute to finance the expansion of his court and his armies for his conquest of Persia. The tribute included elephants and their mahouts or handlers, precious metals and other commodities. As well as bringing in Indian artisans, engineers and other technical people to design and supervise the expansion of his capital Ghazna and his court along with slaves to do the physical labour, he also recruited large numbers of Indian troops from the Rajput kingdoms he had subjugated who were called ghulam or “client/slave soldiers,” These mercenaries, willing or unwilling, were then formed into ethnic unite of the Ghaznavid armies and some as Mahmud’s personal bodyguard along with their necessary camp followers who, like the fighting men, brought their wives and children with them. Even the wives of the Rajput soldiers served as night watchpersons who brought water to the troops and performed other necessary supportive tasks in the military structure.
It is also mentioned that some of these Indian kshatriya even became generals in Mahmud’s army. Many of these troops along with their camp followers and hangers on like musicians, traders, salt and water carriers, religious leaders, etc, were assigned to garrison duty in Khurasan in eastern Persia. Units of ethnic troops who retained their ethnic religions and languages were common in the polyglot, multi-ethnic Ghaznavid armies which included not only Indians, but pagan Kumans or Turkmen from the steppes, Arabs, Kurds and others. Often prisoners taken in battle were recruited to replace men lost on the Ghaznavid side. Like other empires from the Persian and Roman Empires to the British Empire, the fighting men of the defeated and colonized peoples were incorporated into the armies of the conquerors. Most soldiers in these far off days served masters for plunder not out of duty or patriotism unless defending their homes and families. Bands of mercenaries and nomadic tribesmen would join up for a campaign and the survivors would then head for home laden with plunder and slaves when victory was obtained or flee without their loot if defeated. One Sanskrit-derived word for soldier in some Romani dialects, ‘lur’ or ‘lurdo’ also means ‘plunderer,’ and is the past participle of the verb lurel to ‘rob/plunder.’ (Sanskrit lunthayati ‘to rob/plunder’ through Hindi lutna which also gives English ‘loot.’ from Hindi). Conditions in later armies had not improved much by the time of the thirty-years-war in Europe in the 17th century when “Catholic” and “Protestant” mercenaries plundered and murdered anyone unable to get out of their way as they marched around western and central Europe under the shared banner of Jesus leaving rapine, death, devastation and circling vultures in their wakes.
In 1038 the Ghuzz Turks, later known as the Seljuks, crossed the boundary river Oxus most likely pressured out of the steppes by other barbarians more numerous and fiercer than themselves, and entered this Ghaznavid region in Khurasan looking for green pastures for their herds and a place to live in peace. This was an invasion of Ghaznavid territory and a series of battles ensued culminating in the three-day Battle of Dandanqan (1040) near the city of Merv where the Ghaznavids, under Mas’ud, the less militarily-gifted son of Mahmud, were decisively defeated. What happened to the surviving Indian troops and their camp followers after this is unclear except that large numbers of troops and camp followers did survive and many took service under their captors. There is also documented and other incontestable evidence that within a short time after this battle, hordes of refugees fled west to escape the Turks and there are references to Indians in the eastern kingdom of Armenia not long after the Battle of Dandanqan. The existence of a battery of Armenian loan words in all European-Romani dialects such as ambrol ‘pear,’ angushtri ‘ring,’ and bov ‘stove,’ suggests that these were picked up in Armenia before the Roma began moving out of this area and into Greek-speaking Byzantine Anatolia and finally, much later, into the Balkans, in a series of multiple migrations over a period of 200 to 300 or more years. It is also possible that the so-called “Lom Gypsies” who inhabit Armenia today may be descended from the Romani families who remained behind although their Lomavren linguistic register which now contains only root elements of Indo-Aryan words does not prove or disprove this conclusively.
The eastern Kingdom of Armenia soon became subjected to raids by the Seljuks Turks who finally conquered it at the Battle of Ani in 1064 forcing large numbers of Armenians and probably some of the Indians to migrate West to Cilicia which was then under Byzantine Suzerainty. The Turks then pushed into Anatolia which then belonged to the Eastern-Roman Empire or Byzantium as it is more commonly known. The Byzantine army was defeated at the Battle of Manzikirt in 1071 and the Seljuks established the Sultanate of Roum, also known as Iconium, in Anatolia. By 1192. the Sultanate of Roum had absorbed most of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia except for Nicaea in Anatolia and Constantinople and the Balkan Empire across the Bosporus. The Indians, who had earlier entered this region, found themselves in this Greek-speaking region dominated by Seljuk Turks who used Persian as their administrative language. As soldiers in the Ghaznavid army, the Indians, who spoke a mixture of Indo-Aryan related dialects, adopted a Military lingua franca based on these native languages mixed with many Persian loan words which was the military koïné used by the Ghaznavids to communicate with their Indian subjects and troops. This was in effect nobody’s native language, but a camp language used for communication by troops who spoke differing or different native languages. This military koïné continued to exist long after the Indian troops left India in the 11th century and it evolved through the later 16th century Moghul conquerors of India into Urdu, the military koïnés used by the Moghuls and later, Urdu-Hindustani adopted by the later British Raj for their polyglot Indian sepoys and colonial administrators. Urdu is now the language of Pakistan.
The Indians become Roma
Up to this point, the refugee ghulams (indentured soldiers) and their camp followers had seen themselves as dislocated Indians, refugees even, but in the Sultanate of Roum, they began to see themselves as a people in their own right as the older members of the group died off and the younger generations born outside of India, lost their Indian identity and instead, took on an identity of Roma, meaning the ‘adults’ or the ‘people’ from the word Rom which means an adult/married man in Romani. In all probability they were subdivided into many clans and occupational definitions or jatis, such as animal traders, metal smiths, basket makers, musicians, etc, adding new ones as new economic strategies appeared and dropping older ones as older work strategies disappeared, an identity marker which has continued until today in many regions. Contrary to what many “scholars” have written, horse-trading was not a profession Romani traders could have followed in India because the working animals there were the elephant, and ox, also described as a ‘bullock.’ Some of our Indian ancestors might have traded oxen or bullocks. Riding horses were imported from Arabia by the Rajputs through middle men in Afghanistan. The Indic-derived word for horse in Romani is khuro. (Hindi ghora) and horses as beasts of burden as well as wagons pulled by horses were first encountered by the migrating Romani people in Armenia where the Armenian word grai ‘horse’ and the Ossetian word ‘urdon ‘wagon,’ along with the objects represented by these words were adopted into our evolving Romani language and economy. In the 20th century the older trades such as horse trading became less and less viable forcing the Romani men to adapt and become dealers in automobiles and trucks, others to scrap collecting or some other viable work strategy giving rise to even more new trades such as automobile body work and the retreading of automobile tires. The women of course had always been fortune-tellers, midwives, herbalists, hawkers and some were entertainers along with their families in the musician groups.
In the Sultanate of Roum, the language of the group became the military koïné, the only “native” language they had in common which their parents had spoken under the Ghaznavids plus a gradually adopted battery of Byzantine Greek added to the existing Persian and Armenian borrowings which then became our native language or Romani shib. In this new environment which was inhabited by farming communities and pastoral Turkish and Kurdish nomads with a few large towns and villages here and there, the emerging the Romani people found a niche for themselves as commercial nomads, traders, artisans and musicians, in other words middle-men, traders, service providers and entertainers. The military element was obviously no longer paramount and the descendants of the Kshátriya, who probably existed only in family or clan groups, most likely look service with local Seljuk warlords to go on raids for plunder against the enemies of Islam as mercenary ghazis (warriors of Islam) or as bodyguards. Some no doubt fought against the Crusaders as bashi-bazouks (irregular troops) and would have had their own camp followers. The camp followers in general increased in numbers and became traders, artisans, animal dealers, musicians and entertainers and whatever other profession would enable them to survive and in order to find less competition as certain trades became saturated. As the original families increased in numbers over the years, small groups began to gradually migrate westwards into Nicaea and across the Bosporus to Constantinople drawn by tales of the wealth to be found in “The Golden City.” As the power of the Seljuk Turks waned, the Sultanate of Roum broke into numerous small entities or Beyliks, each ruled by a different warlord and out of this power vacuum arose a new power, the Ottoman Turks, who began expanding into the Byzantine Empire in the Balkans. As their armies entered the Balkans, they brought Romani bashi-bazouks and artisans with them, thus establishing a Romani presence in this area. Evidence also points to Romani sazende or musicians serving with the invading Ottoman armies. Romani musicians not only played martial music with wind instruments and drums for the army but also performed as entertainers playing the Turkish saz (a type of long-necked lute from which the Greek bouzouki is derived), the kemana (type of fiddle) and tambourines as well as the eternal zurna, a very loud double-reed shawm accompanied by a large drum or dauli.
The Romani Diaspora in Europe
From Byzantine Nicaea, Roma had also begun to enter the Balkans by the 14th century and some groups slowly moved through the Slavic-speaking regions picking up words of old Serbian and other Slavic languages until they reached Wallachia and Moldavia where we added a few Rumanian words to the evolving Romani dialects of the migrating companies. Other groups of Romanies remained in the Balkans south of the Rumanian Principalities. This part of our history cannot be disputed because from here on it is recorded, if not always accurately, plus the fact that all Romani dialects spoken or recorded from Wales in Britain to Siberia contain these same loan words from Persian. Armenian, Byzantine Greek, Old Slavic and Rumanian. One indication of the date of this Balkan passage is the appearance of Slavic/Rumanian pushka/púsca ; ‘gun/firearm’ in various surviving or recorded Romani dialects of the first wave (c1400-1500 CE) in Scotland, the Netherlands, Spain, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. This indicates early firearms were in use as we passed through these regions and adopted the word and probably the item it represented as well. After reaching Rumania, small groups of Romanies drifted off in different directions, each with its leader whom European chronicles refer to as “counts” and “dukes” and made their way into all countries of Europe. By the 16th century. we were everywhere from the British Isles and Spain, as far east as Poland and western Russia, as far North as Norway and as far South as Greece. Many Roma remained in Wallachia and Moldavia where they were soon gradually enslaved because of their economic value as artisans and labourers and were held in brutal bondage like the African slaves in the Spanish, Portuguese, French and English colonies of the Americas until the Slobuzhéniya or Emancipation in 1864.
Historians refer to this exodus, migration and dispersal of the Romani people as our origins and Diaspora. We originated in North-Central India, migrated via Afghanistan (Gháza) as ghulam troops and their camp followers in the early 11th century CE, passed through Persia, Armenia, Byzantium, the Sultanate of Roum, Greece, the Kingdom of Serbia and what is now Rumania to central Europe. We then split off into smallish groups and made our way into all the countries of Europe. In central-eastern Europe and the Balkans the Romani people adopted an identity of Roma and by emigration in the Americas and elsewhere. Those of the first wave did not, as far as we know, use this term. With them, Rom means ‘husband or ‘married adult male,’ but does not imply ethnicity. Roma means simply the mature. married adults. Some Romanies in western Europe defined themselves as Kale (Spain, Wales and Finland), Romanichel (France and England) and later, Sinti (probably from German reisende ‘traveler.’) in Germany/Austria and later by migration, in Italy and elsewhere in Europe while those in France also defined themselves as Manush. Still other groups of the First Wave chose other self-definitions but all of us, regardless of what we call ourselves, are lumped together as “gypsies” occasionally, more generously as “Gypsies” with a capital G. What this is supposed to mean, other than a contraction of Egyptian, has never been clearly defined except that to Gazhe or outsiders, it means “Others” who are not “Us.” Even the Gypsy Lore Society which assumed the role of defining, classifying and clinically dissecting us, cannot come up with a better definition than peripatetic which seems “very pathetic” in an era when 90 percent of all people entitled to define themselves as Romani are sedentary and move only because of systematic discrimination, persecution, or ethnic cleansing. It is more likely that young non-Romani graduate students coming out of modern universities are more peripatetic than Romanies as they move around the academic circuit searching for that elusive tenure. Furthermore, since, as people, we have lived in Europe and shared, as victims, not only in its racism, persecution and the Holocaust but also, when allowed to, contributed to its developments and arts, We are thus equally entitled to claim European identity since Romanies have been living in the Balkans and in most European countries quite some time before any European began settling permanently in the Americas. In 1492, when Columbus was preparing for his fatal voyage of discovery, fatal for Native Peoples of the Americas, that is, Romani blacksmiths were casting cannon balls for the Spanish army besieging the city of Grenada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain!
Up to our arrival in Rumania, we had travelled more or less together as one people or at least in an overlapping leapfrog migration and spoke a more-or-less common Romani language. Once we dispersed into all the countries of Europe, we lost our unity as one people and our once common language slowly deteriorated into a large number of dialects because we lived in different countries of Europe, were surrounded by non-Romanies who spoke many languages which we borrowed from as new items and concepts were encountered and because Roma living in Russia never met Roma from Greece or Romanichels in Britain and vice-versa close contact and universal identity was lost. Lacking a written language and an educated elite, Romani developed into a group of strictly oral vernaculars. Thus, the different groups of Roma that exist today, speaking different dialects, living in different countries, are the result of our history after we arrived in Europe. When we entered Europe, we were one people called Roma or Romíti with a shared Indian origin and a shared Romani identity in Anatolia. Today we have a shared history of rejection and persecution in Europe and a shared inclusion in Hitler’s Final Solution as “lives unworthy of life.” As the European Roma say; “Ande l’ bova sa samas yekh – In the crematoria, we were all one.” Today (2009) we share a mutual exclusion in a Europe rapidly becoming more and more fascist, in the so-called Decade of Roma Inclusion.
When did we leave India
How do we know when we left India? European scholars often maintain we left at different times as much as 500 years or more apart. This does not stand up to the evidence. The Romani language is a koïné derived from a group of Sanskrit-based languages such as Punjabi, Hindi, Bengali, Dardic, Multani and others. Most of these languages developed in parallel. Linguistic analysis shows that the input languages to the Military koïné belonged to this category, languages which gradually reduced their genders from three to two, abolishing the older neuter gender completely and reclassifying almost all the former neuter word as masculine. Romani too has two genders and shows the same masculine gender words as related Indian languages. Even one formerly neuter-gender word became feminine in both Romani and Indian two-gender languages. This is Romani yag ‘fire.’ What this must mean is that our ancestors left India speaking languages that had two genders, a linguistic evolution which was not completed until well into the 10th century CE. (Hancock, 1999) European Roma cannot therefore be descended from the legendary Luri musicians who were supposedly sent to Persia around 500 years before 1001 CE and the beginning of Mahmud Ghazni’s raids into Northern India or any other earlier Indian migration such as that of the Jatts in the 9th century CE under the Arab Caliphates which preceded the Ghaznavid rulers in Afghanistan, if they had, they would have the old three-genders which in fact, Domari, an Indian-Arabic register spoken in the Middle East and descended from a much earlier Indian migration, shows evidence of this missing third gender (Hancock 1999). Only one existing Indian group, some Banjara clans, especially the Labani or ‘salt carriers,’ claim to be connected with the migration of the ancestors of the Roma from India because of their ancestral legends which claim some of their clans wandered out of India to serve Mahmud Ghazni and never returned.. This would obviously make sense. As salt and water carriers and animal herders, some Banjara could easily have been included among the camp followers of the Indian ghulam troops. since they performed these functions for armies within India before and long after the ancestors of the Roma had departed. Romanies in Spain are said to have performed this service, carrying supplies to the Spanish army during at various times in the 16th century. (Leblon, various references).
The origins of paternalistic racism and creation of the Gypsy stereotype
Ever since our arrival in Europe, European scholars have tried to define us by what we were in Europe during their lifetimes, especially starting with Heinrich M. Grellman in the 19th century who described Roma in words indicative or some loathsome species of vermin destined for extinction in a “civilized European regime.” (Die Zigeuner. Ein historischer Versuch über die Lebensart und verfassung, Dessau and Leipzig.1807) His Nazi disciples certainly tried their best to do just this under Hitler’s “civilized European regime!” Grellman and other European scholars (sic) assumed that we had always been what they considered to be a low caste of nomads, even in India. This gave rise to the arrogant European belief that all our ancestors had been Domba, based on our word Rom, which these self-appointed “erudite experts” who had never visited India chose to define as a “very low caste of beggars, thieves, prostitutes and grave diggers.” (It actually means ‘people’ or ‘human beings’ according to Prof. Donald Kendrick). One dictionary definition still gives the following entry for Dom:
…a very low caste, representing some old aboriginal race, spread all over India. They perform such offices as carrying dead bodies, removing carrion, and so on.
(Hancock, Ian, 1995, A Handbook of Vlax Romani p.19)
Indian Dom were historically a wandering cast of musicians and entertainers of many ethnic and religious origins and certainly not a “race”(sic). They are said to predate the arrival of the Indo-Europeans in India but later Dom groups have included Hindu, Pagan and Muslim members. Furthermore, Dom are described as following many trades such as blacksmith, musician, peddler, farmer, etc. While it is difficult to pin down the actual meaning of Dom as used in India, at least from Western sources, Dom or Domba do have their own ancestral language which still spoken today by about 200,000 people and this is not Sanskrit-based like Romani. The original Dom are said to have had their own religion often described as “pagan.” It is not improbable that some Dom may have been part of the conglomerate collection of camp followers in the ghulam units serving the Ghaznavids, and as such, their descendants would have adopted the military koïné in Ghaza. It also seems likely that in India, Dom came to mean more of a loosely-defined social definition in the caste system, or maybe outside of it, rather than an iron-bound origin, ethnicity, profession and or lifestyle. My attempts to discover the true meaning of Dom on the Internet and elsewhere have resulted in total confusion and a myriad of contradictions. As to whether Rom is ultimately derived from Dom, until we can arrive at a definition of Dom that is in any way significant, this must be left up to future research to resolve. Some authorities now tend to believe Rom may stem from Romiti, the name for the peoples living in the Sultanate of Roum or Rum. But we are still left with Rom meaning a husband and adult married male, a meaning that Dom does not have and appears never to have had in India. Some linguists have pointed out that Sanskrit had a certain ‘d” sound that they allege became an “r” sound in Romani which many Roma now write as “rr”. Ironically, other than the word Rrom and its derivatives and rroiyi ‘spoon.,’ a list of words that I compiled that use this “rr” turn out to be almost all words derived from European languages such as rradika ‘radish,’ rráka ‘crab,’ rrakíya ‘whisky’ and rrubízla ‘rhubarb,’ not from Sanskrit or Sanskrit-derived Indian vernaculars.
Attempts by some non-Romani researchers to prove that the ancestors of the Romani people belonged to the so-called Gypsy tribes of India, such as the Sansis and the Sikligars of the Punjab, have equally failed to find any convincing evidence because there were no Gypsy tribes in India until the 19th century when the British Rulers of India invented them. Historically there have always been numerous commercial and pastoral nomadic groups in India but the “Gypsies of India” are a creation of the British Raj who lumped together the various nomadic Indian groups into a classification of ‘Gypsy Criminal Tribes” because of their alleged and actual petty thieving of agricultural products. This new category of Indians was based not on the familiarity of the British with anything native to India, but simply because of the existence of the Gypsies in Britain and their alleged propensity for petty theft of agricultural products and poaching on the lands of these British gentry who were now busy plundering the wealth and resources of India under the guise of “Empire Builders.” This is succinctly expressed in the Romani adage; “O Rrom chorel e khaini, o Gazho chorel e ferma – The Romani man steals the chicken, the Non-Romani man steals the farm.” After the independence of India, the so-called “criminal; Gypsy tribes” were denotified (decriminalized) and re-classified simply as nomads to be promptly persecuted as such under the new regime and forced to settle among the poverty, disease and garbage in the sprawling slum quarters of the growing cities of the New India.
Roma Reality vs. The Gypsy Myth
Traditional Roma today follow a very strict code of behaviour loosely called the “mahrime code” by anthropologists and “Gypsylorists” and Rromaníya/Rromanipe by the Roma. In a nutshell, while Europeans in general have two categories, clean and dirty, and things which are dirty can become clean by washing, Romanies, on the other hand, have three categories, wuzho ‘clean’, melalo ‘dirty’ and mahrime ‘defiled/polluted/taboo.’ Traditional Romanies tend to see themselves as a pure caste and all outsiders as potential sources of pollution. To a thinking person, this would seem indicative an original high cast while any connection with prostitution results in severe social censure and banishment from the group among the most traditional Roma and Sinti. Less traditional Romani groups also often have strict codes of social behaviour and of what is clean and what is defiling, like the mokerdi rules of the English Romanichels, the palechedo of the Sinti and the magyaripe of the Polska Roma along with the fear of outside pollution from non-Romanies, though not perhaps as rigid as that of the Kalderash, Churara, Lovara, Machwaya etc. Again, the term used to define the outsider is Gadjo/Gadzho, etc, depending on the dialect. Linguistic research connects its origin with Sanskrit garhya ‘domestic’ and by deduction, a person of low cast through Prakrit gajha and not as some dilettantes have insisted. from the Ghazni in Mahmud Ghazni. Among the nomadic Sansis and Sikligars of the Punjab, gajjha means simply ‘farmer.’ Since traditional modern Roma see themselves as purer or of a higher caste than the non-Roma and who feel they can be polluted by too close contact with Gadje, it would appear that Gadjo signifies a person of lower caste, which certainly belies the theory that Rom is derived from Dom. Grellman and his peers seem to have overlooked this purity and defilement aspect of the Romani culture in an era when in Romani eyes, defiled non-Romani peasants kept domestic fowl and animals in their hovels and even the wealthier people, probably including Herr Grellman himself, often gave their dinner plates to their pet dog to polish off the remains of their dinner! The plate could then be “washed clean” and re-used to serve tomorrow’s dinner! Among the Roma, such a plate would be destroyed as being mahrime and thus capable of defilement.
Again, all words in Romani dialects today that have to do with a settled community with land and agriculture are words brought from India, for example gav ‘village’, phuv ‘land’, kher ‘house’, wudar ‘door’, guruv ‘bull/ox’, gurumni ‘cow’, khaini ‘chicken’, giv ‘grain/wheat,’ etc. On the other hand, words one would assume Indian nomads to have needed and preserved including the wild animals and birds (except for chiriklo ‘generic bird’) are words borrowed from languages outside of India such as camp, tent, trail, spring, tiger, elephant, eagle, vulture, etc. Furthermore, we have military terms in Romani such as xanro ‘straight sword’, tover (now axe or cleaver but related to Hindi tulwar, a curved sword), busht ‘spear’ , khuro ‘horse’, and patav ‘leggings,’ ‘leg bindings,’ or ‘puttees’. Rajput cavalry wrapped their legs in puttees (patave) or strips of cloth to prevent them from chaffing against the rope stirrups they used. Why would nomads without horses need words such as these and why would they preserve them once outside of India unless they had left India in a military capacity along with camp followers to repair and service their military equipment? Admittedly, nobody knows how many Indian words became lost in the thousand-year Diaspora to be replaced with non-Indian borrowings but nevertheless, those which remain present many clues as to our history. For instance, as mentioned, Armenian grai ‘draft horse’ shows that we encountered horses as working animals in Armenia while petalo ‘horseshoe’ from Byzantine Greek tells us we encountered paved roads and iron horseshoes in Byzantium.
Now, after almost three centuries of being erroneously defined by non-Romani scholars and gypsylorists who saddled us with their versions of our alleged history, Romani and non-Romani scholars are finally on the right track and we hope that this line of research will be followed by others and will finally find its way into the history books and elsewhere. Many pieces are missing but the main story, the skeleton, has been defined. The rest will follow through future resesrch and the former mythology and interesting “theories” of scholars and dilettantes will be relegated to the realm of fairy tales. We have for too long been erroneously defined by outsiders – now we must correctly define ourselves!
Crooke, W. The Tribes and Castes of the North-Western Provinces and Oudh, in four volumes. Calcutta, 1896: Office of the Superintendent of Governmental Printing, India.
Fraser, Angus. The Gypsies. Oxford, UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwall, 1996.
Hancock, Ian, The Pariah Syndrome; An account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution. 1987, Anne Arbor: Karoma Publishers, Inc.
Hancock, Ian. “The Emergence of Romani As A Koïné Outside of India”. London1999: Excerpt from Essays In Honour of Donald Kenrick on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, Ed. Thomas Acton.
Hancock, Ian. We Are The Romani People: Ame Sam E Rromane Dzene. Hatfield 2002: Hertfordshire U.P.
Leblon, Bernard. Gypsies and Flamenco, Hatfield, 1995, University of Hertfordshire press.
Lee, Ronald. “Romani Origin and Diaspora: From Ghaznavids to Nazis,” section 3, The Romani Diaspora in Canada, Class Course book, New College, University of Toronto, Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc, Toronto, 2007
Marsh, Adrian. “No Promised Land” History, Historiography & the Origins of the Gypsies.” 2008, Istanbul & London. Thesis: submitted for consideration for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the school of Humanities, University of Greenwich, London, 2008
Marushiakova, Elena and Popov, Veselin. Gypsies in the Ottoman Empire. Hatfield 2001, U.H.P
Nicolle, David. Medieval Warfare Source Book: Christian Europe and its Neighbours. London 1996: Brockhampton Press,.
Rishi, Weer R. Multilingual Romani Dictionary, Chandigarh 1974: Roma Publications, Indian Institute of Romani Studies, University of Chandigarh.
Singh, Sher. The Sansis of the Punjab (A Gypsy and De-notified Tribe of Rajput Origin). Delhi, 1965, Munshiram Manoharlal
Singh, Sher. The Sikligars of Punjab (A Gypsy Tribe), Delhi & Jollundur City, 1966. Sterling Publishers (P) Ltd.
Tod, James, edited with an introduction and notes by Crooke, William. Annals And Antiquities of Rajasthan or the Central and Western Rajput States of India. London 1920, Oxford UP