How The Roma Trace Their Origins Back To India

A European in Gypsy Costume (Image: Brooklyn Museum)
From the Romani language to their adopted flag, the links with India are many, and ancient.

On April 8, 1971, the first World Romani Congress was held in London. The historically persecuted Romani people were emerging from the horrors of the Holocaust to claim their identity. Their flag was unveiled; a banner of two-stripes – blue above and green below. In the middle is the Ashoka Chakra.

Blue represents the heavens, and green, the earth. Red is the colour of fire, the Romani’s historic companion in the nomadic life. And the Chakra is the wheel of creation. But it is also a throwback to the Romani people’s ancient roots – India.

“Two Gypsies” by Francisco Iturrino, 1901-1903 (Image: Public Domain)

The idea of a nomadic race having a common ancestor was considered problematic. For centuries, the Romanis identified with no single country – having a presence across Europe, the United States and even Brazil in recent times. But the Romani language bears many similarities to Sanskrit-based languages of the Indo-Iranian family.

Count to ten in Romani in India and you will not find yourself speaking a ‘foreign’ tongue. The numbers are phonetically alike. There are many other words with shared meanings too: Chor is a thief, paani is water, I is ‘men‘ and ‘dikh‘ is ‘to see’.

These similarities did not go unnoticed. The first World Romani Congress was partly funded by the Government of India – for some, the Chakra was an attempt to symbolically reunite with their ancient home. In 1974, Indira Gandhi supported the demand for the Romanis to be declared a “national minority of Indian origin”.

That recognition was not given, however. But since 2014, this rhetoric has found a growing support base in India. The call for minority status was made again, by the president of the World Roma Organisation.

In 2016, the Ministry of External Affairs along with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations hosted the International Roma Conference and Culture Festival in Delhi. Organized by the overseas wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, it highlighted the ‘Hindu’ origins of the Roma. But some theories suggest that might not be the wisest aspect to highlight, historically.

In 1783, Heinrich Grellmen first suggested the idea that the Roma were descendants of the ‘Shudra’ lower caste. In 1843, a scholar named Brockhaus pointed out that the North Indian ‘Dom’ community shared the same name that the Roma had given themselves – ‘Rom’. The German word for ‘gypsy’ is Zigeuner – a word whose roots go back to the Greek word for ‘Untouchable’. The ‘gypsies’ never identified themselves as such – because the name is packed with derogatory slang, and represents an age-old misconception that the Roma came from Egypt.

Whether it was their ‘lower’ caste heritage, their nomadic ways, or complexion, the Roma have been historically persecuted for who they were. But there is no clear answer for why they left India, so many years ago. In 1830, a British army officer stumbled upon a 11th-century Persian book, written by the poet Firdaus.

It stated that in the fifth century, the Indian king ‘Shankal’ gifted 12,000 musicians to his son-in-law, Bahram Gur, who was the Shah of Persia. The king gave them all the material comforts they needed, but on condition that they play music for the poor – for free. They returned a year later, starved and weak, and the king grew irritated – and told them to travel the world and make their living through music.

As origin stories go, it’s poetic. Today, the Roma number 12 million across Europe. But their persecution in Europe continued. During the Holocaust, more than 220,000 were killed by the Nazis. Many thousands were forcibly sterilized.

Post World War II, the Roma remained a stateless people, though their new flag and anthem give them renewed identity. Recent genetic studies have confirmed their South Asian origins; they are now said to hail from the North-West of India.

Despite leaving India so many centuries ago, the Roma have preserved much of their Indian roots. From language to dance forms. Wherever they went in Europe, they brought art and music with them – in spite of the slurs and stereotypes that were formed against them. In Spain, their gift was the Flamenco dance, as well as Pablo Picasso. In the United States, it was (argued) Elvis Presley.  In Britain, Charlie Chaplin.

There is no greater sign of an ancient cultural bridge that this video of a Flamenco dancer complimenting a South Indian Kathak performing, with her moves. India, Romani, Spanish – identities blur together in art.

As Europe struggles to tackle and comprehend its refugee crisis, the Roma are caught in the crossfire of nationalism and tightening asylum regulations. The rhetoric that sees identity as that of ‘us and them’ is, as always, their enemy.

India’s External Affairs Minister has called the Roma “children of India”. Though patronizing, it highlights the potential for India to play a humanitarian role. More cultural exchange, the provision of scholarships and perhaps the granting of minority status – could these be the ingredients needed to return the Roma to their old soil?

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