Romani with their wagon, photographed in the Rheinland of Germany in 1935.
Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J0525-0500-003 / CC-BY-SA, distributed under a Creative Commons license (German Federal Archives)
About 10 million to 12 million people worldwide, and about a million in the United States, belong to an ethnic group known as the Romani. They are more commonly — and often pejoratively — called Gypsies. How the Romani people came to be is a bit of a mystery, as is the lifestyle and culture of this eclectic group of people.
It is believed the Romani people migrated to Europe from India about 1,500 years ago. This theory was solidified several decades ago when researchers concluded that Romani populations have a high frequency of a particular Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA that are only found in populations from South Asia.
Early on, the Romani people were not allowed to settle permanently because they were believed to be part of the invading Ottoman Empire. Europeans bestowed the name Gypsy on them because they mistakenly thought they had emigrated from Egypt. Many Romani find the name derogatory, preferring to be known as Romani, Manouches, Tziganes or Gitans.
The Romani people were discriminated against for their dark skin and once enslaved by Europeans. They have been portrayed as cunning, mysterious outsiders who tell fortunes and steal before moving on to the next town. In fact, the term “gypped” was originally coined to mean being robbed by a Gypsy.
Also, as a matter of survival, the Romani were continuously on the move. They developed a reputation for a nomadic lifestyle and a highly insular culture. Because of their outsider status and migratory nature, few attended school and literacy was not widespread. Much of what is known about the culture comes through stories told by singers and oral histories.
The Romani have typically disdained organized religion, but that isn’t to say they don’t have a spiritual nature and value rituals. As part of their Indian roots, they believe in karma, or a spiritual balance. The Romani view life as a continuous struggle between a divine being and the devil and that your future will depend on which gains control.
An integral part of the spiritual balance is respect for elders, and Romani believe that ancestors punish those who violate this critical tenet.
Romani also believe that spiritual energy, also known as dji, can be depleted by spending too much time with those outside of their community, which is another explanation for why they are reluctant to assimilate.
Today, gypsies typically adopt the predominant religion of the country where they are living, typically Christianity (Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox) or Muslim.
Traditionally, anywhere from 10 to several hundred extended families form bands, or kumpanias, which travel together in caravans. Each band is lead by a voivode, whom the families elect for lifetime and would sometime refer himself as a duke or count when dealing with to outsiders. A senior woman in the band, called a phuri dai, looks after the welfare of the group’s women and children.
Smaller alliances, called vitsas, are formed within the bands and are made up of families who are brought together through common ancestry.
Romani live by a complex set of rules that govern things such as cleanliness, purity, respect, honor and justice. For example, clothes worn below the waist have to be washed separately from items worn above the waist and hands that have touched shoes have to be immediately washed. Water for bathing has to flow from the head down.
Families typically involve multiple generations living together, including unmarried young and adult children and a married son, his wife and their children. By the time an older son is ready to establish his own household, a younger son often will have married and brought his wife and children into the family.
Romani typically marry young — often in their teens — and many marriages are arranged. Weddings are typically very elaborate, involving very large and colorful dress for the bride and her many attendants.
Gypsies also have a long history of training, trading and caring for animals. They also worked as metal smiths, and repaired utensils and sold household goods they made themselves. Many worked as traveling entertainers, using their rich musical background to earn money.
While there are still traveling bands of Gypsies, most use cars and RVs to move from placed to place rather than the horses and wagons of the past.
Today, most have settled into houses and apartments and are not readily distinguishable. Because of continued discrimination, many do not publicly acknowledge their Gypsy roots and only reveal themselves to other Romani.
While there is not a physical country affiliated with the Romani people, the International Romani Union was officially established in 1977. In 2000, The 5th World Romany Congress in 2000 officially declared Romani a non-territorial nation.
April 8 is International Day of the Roma, a day to raise awareness of the issues facing the Gypsy community and celebrate the Gypsy culture.
Modern Gypsy culture is memorialized in the TLC program “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.”