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Examining the Indian Roots of Roma; Their Historical, Linguistic and Cultural Heritage:

Examining the Indian Roots of Roma; Their Historical, Linguistic and Cultural Heritage:

The origin of Roma community is now neither a myth nor a secret. The mystery of origin and the distant history of Roma have been penetrated linguistically, historically and culturally. The findings of linguistic and cultural anthropology as well as ethnological study of Roma community substantiated Indian lineage of Roma and broke off the archaic stereotypes attached to the origin and migration of Romani people who have still been the most disadvantaged and marginalized where ever their abodes are.

The first attempt was made to trace the roots of Roma by virtue of linguistic comparison by a Hungarian pastor Valyi Stefan, who was traditionally attributed to the "discovery" of the Indian origins of Roma. In the early 1760s, he at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands came across three fellow students from Malabar Coast in India, whose language and appearance reminded him of Roma living near Komárno (in present day southern Slovakia).  

Valyi Stefan was from a landowning family that employed Roma on its estate, therefore he noticed similarities in the language spoken by Malabari students and Roma. He jotted down a list of over 1,000 words used by students and compared the list of words with those of Romani Chib after his return from the university in order to dispel his suspicion. As he was not a linguist so he shared this new- found information with his friend – a printer named Nameth Istvan who passed this story onto another person, Captain Szekely Von Doba, later on, he narrated the story to the scholar Georg Pray.  

Shortly thereafter, Samuel Augustin Ab Hortis put out a string of articles in the same journal under the title “On the Present State, Special Manners, Way of Life and Other Properties and Gifts of the Gypsies in Ugria (from 1775 to 1776). 

However, Ian Hancock - Romani professor at University of Texas, confuted Valyi’s discovery and his list of 1000 words in his book “Danger! Educated Gypsy: Selected Essays.” In 1990, Ian Hancock visited the University of Leiden and shared his keenness to examine the record of Vályi István and his list of 1000 words with Dr. Harm Beukers of the Faculteit of Wetenschappen (Faculty of Social Sciences) who pursued the matter personally and examined both the Recentzelissten and the Volumina Inscriptzo numbers for the year 1750 to 1763 but he did not find the name István Vályi or Stephen (Stefan) Vali in the register entry for 16 May 1761.

But fact is that Indian origin of Roma became widespread and drew due attention following the publication by Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb Grellmann (1783). In his pioneering work- “Die Zigeuner”, he proposed the hypothesis that acknowledges the origin of Roma from India. He argued that the language of gypsies, their names, the constitution of their bodies, their customs, religious practices corroborate that there is no country in the world where these traits and attributes possibly meet but India, (His Dissertation on the Gipsies). He opined, Roma and the inhabitants of India closely resemble one another in complexion, face and shape. Fortune-telling and premonition particularly by Roma God-men\women, is practiced all over the European countries, but the singular kind of prognostication professed by Roma for an instance, Chiromancy refereeing to the presumed prediction of a person's future including happiness or unhappiness in marriage and wealth or destitution in life, etc., is nowhere identical but to that in India.

August Fridrich Pott (1844 to 1845) and Franz Miklosich (1871 to 1882) both identified the homeland of the Roma as the Punjab on the basis of comparative studies of Romani and the languages of the Indian subcontinent. The English linguist Ralph Turner presented a hypothesis whereby, Roma originally lived in Rajasthan in Northern India near the western border of Pakistan, from where they scattered across other areas in central, northeastern and northwestern India.

Ian Hancock has lately proposed his submission, pointing out that Roma were not of the lowest caste, but the victorious soldiers of warrior caste (Kshatrias) who assembled the army to fight Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni. He firmly validates his argument on the basis of anthropological genetic blood test that reveals proven physical symbiotic between people of Roma heritage and present day warrior classes of Northern India.  He also noted that linguistic, physical and cultural aspects of Roma are very Indian, even spiritual and mystical realm of life resembles the Indian spiritual and mystic way of life. Roma long for a spiritually balanced life, known as Kintala, that is quite similar to Karma. 

Lending support to the Hancock’s submission, Adrian Marsh evolved the theory that espouses the emergence of Roma from military force. Isabel Fonseca in her book “Bury Me Standing” entrenched the position of Rajput as ancestors of Roma.

But, Robert Moreau argued that Romani people are consisted of an amalgamation of different tribes held as slaves by Tamerlane in an internment camp near Samarkand. According to Indian anthropologist S.S. Shashi (Roma- The Gypsy World), Roma belong to various Indian Communities viz. Banjara, Gujjar, Lohars, Chauhan, Kshtrias, Pastoral Communities, Jott (Jats) and some other lower castes as well.

According to John Sampson, a company of the caste known as Dom left India and spent some time in Persia and on the borders of the Mediterranean. He propounded the hypothesis that postulates migration from India in the ninth century that moved through Persia and subsequently broken up in three classes, Domari – Dom; remaining in the Middle East, Lomavren – Lom; moving off in Armenia, and Romani speaker- Rom; moving westward and eventually dropped in Europe.

For a long time it was thought that Roma came from Egypt – territory nearer to Europe than from the distant and mysterious country India. They were considered to be pilgrims from Egypt. Roma themselves claimed to be a descendant of Christians banished from Egypt. However, their Egyptian descent was refuted by Aventin, Kranz and Miinster who asserted, their language and customs are diametrically opposite to the Egyptians.

New Research Studies conducted by Romani and Non-Romani scholars in Europe and elsewhere have finally swept away the Egyptian myth and corroborated the origins of the Romani people from India.

The "Shahnameh" book of Firdawsi- a Persian scribe and poet at the court of Mahmud Ghazni and other contemporary chronicles and writings by Arab Historian – Al Talibi and Persian Historian and Philologist Hamza Al-Isfahani affirm that Roma originated from India but were a heterogonous mix, did not belong to one specific group, nor to one caste nor to one place. Their writings helped in inferring the significant conclusion that Roma/ Gypsies were Indian immigrants who reached Persia well before the 10th century.

In 961 A. D. Hamza al-Isfahani noted that Shah Bahram V. Gur (420 -438 A.D.) asked Indian ruler Shangal for musicians and singers. On his request, king Shangal sent 12,000 singers and musicians to Persia. The same accounts can be found in the Persian national epic- Shahnameh of Firdawsi in 1011, giving a vivid account that Bahram Gur or Bahram V, the Sasanian king (420 –438 AD) received about 12000 musicians of both sexes from Indian ruler Shangal.

This incident undoubtedly had taken place in fifth century as this account has been well recorded and reported independently by other writers as well. Going by this story, James Harriott submitted that those musicians were the ancestors of present Romani population.

Angus Fraser remarked that Hamza al-Isfahani used the word "Zott" for musicians whereas Firdawsi called these musicians "Luri". Zott, Luri, Luli are Persian names, still in use for Roma / Gypsy in Syria, Palestine and Egypt.  Zott is an arbicised version of Indian Tribe "Jat" who inhabited Indian province of the Punjab. Their writings helped in inferring the significant conclusion that Roma were Indian immigrants who reached Persia well before the 10th century.

With reference to Jats as progenitors of Romani people, Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821 -1890) suggested this connection and dated the dispersal of Roma in 11th century during the invasion of Sultan Mahmud.

The British author - John Hoyland in his book "A Historical Survey of the Customs, Habits, & Present State of the Gypsies in 1816" mentions, the emigration of Gypsies/Roma was precipitated by the invasion by the Turkish conqueror- Timur Beg in 1398-1399. Wherever he went, he brought about destruction, massacres, burning, looting, ravaging. Those who resisted were massacred and those who defenseless were made slaves.

India origin of Roma was settled to a great extent through empirically analyzing Romani language, and contrasting commonalities and parallels between Roma’s Language- Romani and Sanskrit and other Indian languages.

Romani, the common language of the Roma, the Sinti and the Kale, belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. Romani may be defined as a heterogeneous cluster of various dialect groups. Most of the Romani vocabulary is of Sanskrit origin.  

Apart from the linguistic similarities, the anthropological findings, other characteristics and traits point to Indian origin of Roma. Genetic Studies of the Roma (Gypsies): a review by Luba Kalaydjieva, David Gresham and Francesc Calafell in 2001 ascertains that the European Roma are composed of two different populations, characterised respectively by a high and a low frequency of blood group "B", or defined as West and East European Roma, the later is closely related to Indian populations, therefore Roma are genetically closer to Indians than to European populations.

The recent Genetic studies on Romani Population reveal the presence of Indian-specific Y-chromosome and the comprehensive phylogeographical study of Y-chromosomal haplogroup H1a1a-M82 pertinent to 10,000 global samples corroborates Indian origin of Roma. The analysis of genetic data provides strong population genetic support for the linguistic based identification of the ancestral Roma with the presumed aboriginal Doma of northwestern India and the Gangetic plain (According to the findings of researchers from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) Hyderabad in 2012).

The socio-cultural institutions like the traditional form of jurisdiction, promulgation of customary laws and rules within the groups, such as the commands of cleanness and hygiene. The institution of the group court, called Kris of the Lovara and Kalderas Roma, functions like the Panchayat, the traditional tribal court in Indian villages. Endogamy and the prohibition of commensality (eating together) are still prevalent in both Romani as well as traditional Indian societies. According to the rules of endogamy, members of one caste (jati)– one Roma clan or one Roma sub-ethnic group – may not marry a girl from a clan where a different "caste" profession prevails or that follows different rules of ritual cleanliness. The route of Roma music goes back to India and exhibits traces of the musical culture to which the Roma have been exposed in their migrations.

It is not quite evident when and why Roma left India, most historians assume that the migration of Roma occurred in 5th -6th century during the fall of Gupta dynasty and collisions in the Indian society. (Marushkova, and Popov in 1993) Linguists are likely to conjecture about the Roma exodus from India between 5th and 9th century on account of linguistic data for the construction of Romani Language.

Donald Kendrick in his book “Gypsies: From the Ganges to the Thames” noted the journey of Roma from India to Constantinople, following their route to the Balkans during the Ottoman period and their journey into central and western Europe. Then, they supposedly moved through Persia and Armenia to the Byzantine Empire, to Asia Minor and later on to Greece. His hypothesis recounts the formation of Roma took place outside not inside of India between seventh and tenth century. As Indian immigrants of different tribes intermarried and intermixed in Persia, constituting a people with the name ‘Dom’ later on it became ‘Rom’. Subsequently they in a considerable number moved to Europe that what their descendents are called Roma today.  

There have been many arguments with regards to the ancestors of Romani people. Leland (1882), Kochanowski (1968) and very lately Ian Hancock (2004 and 2006) posited that Roma are the descendants of Indian Kshatriya warrior caste. Their arguments combine both linguistic and historical analysis. Ian Hancock claims that Romani group was formed as a military ‘Koine’ by a caste of warriors gathered to resist the Islamic invasion of India. The Kshatriya theory has been repelled by Marcel Courthiade (2004) on the basis of Abu al-Utbi’s passage noting that Romani people were out-rooted from Kannauj and belonged to all walks of life.

Ian Hancock asserts that historians concede to the fact that the origin of Roma from North-west India between fifth and tenth century and their journey towards Europe began from the end of thirteenth century AD- the migration triggered by a plenty of reasons such as inter-kingdom conflicts, instability, foreign invasion and the better prospect of life in cities like Tehran, Baghdad, later on Constantinople.

Recently Marcel Courthiade proposed the hypothesis that elucidates Roma's original city, Kannauj ‒ 400 km upstream of Benares. It is a fact that Kannauj had been a political capital in the 7th century under emperor Harsha, the last Buddhist Emperor of India, and it remained until 1018 a main epicenter of culture, arts and spiritual life in India, coveted among the powers of the time ‒ Pala, Pratihara-Gurjara and Raśtrakuta dynasties, whose conflicts are known to historians as the "triangle of Kannauj".  Fa-hien, the Chinese pilgrim, visited Kannauj between 399 and 414 A.D., during the reign of Chandragupta II. He remarks “This country is very productive and the people are thriving and chuffed beyond compare.

According to the study of the contemporary authentic historical works, the annals of the transport of men and women from Kannauj and the invasion of Kannauj by Sultan Mahmud Ghazni in 1018 were recorded in the Persian account in Tarikh-i- Sultan Mahmud-i-Ghaznavi, Translated from Pushtu in English by Captain G. Roos-Keppel and Tarikh Yamini or Kitab-i- Yamini of Abu Naur Mahammad ibn Muhammad al Jabbaru-aI-Utbi, translated into English by J. Reynolds.  The excerpt from the book is as follows:

“From Ghazni to Kannauj, it was three month journey and there were seven large rivers to be crossed.When the soldiers of Sultan Mahmud had traversed many stages and had finally arrived at Kanauj on the Eighth of Shaban in 409 Hijri ( 19th December, 1018 CE), they saw great, firm and strong fort, so great that a spectator could think that its head reached to the sky. The Raja of that place was called ‘Korah’, seeing the Sultan army, he was confounded at their grandeur and pomp, and was so terrified that he dropped the idea of fighting. The Raja sent some of his men to the presence of Sultan, saying "I obey the order of the king". When Sultan returned Ghazni, he counted up the plunder which he had taken in the expedition to Kannauj, that turned out to be twenty thousand gold pieces and  thousand rupees, three hundred and fifty elephants and fifty thousand slaves- Males and Females.”

Sultan Mahmud Ghazni invaded Kannauj in December 1018 CE and plundered the city and is reported to have enslaved over 50,000 males and females and took them to his capital Ghazna. They were remarkable artists, artisans and craftsmen who were sold in Ghazni and Kabul, later, Khurasān, Transoxiana (now Central Asia) and Iraq, these places were replete with these populations.  

George C. Soulis noted that Seljuks might have brought a Romani population with them to Asia Minor. Since there are references to the presence of Gypsies (i.e. Roma) in Constantinople in the middle of the eleventh century, it is fascinating to surmise that the Seljuks, whose invasion of Armenia at that time caused the well-known dislocation of the Armenian people who were subsequently driven into Byzantine territory.

The article is written by Md. Zameer Anwar, Research Scholar, Indian Council For International Co-operation (ARSP)
New Delhi, India 






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