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Roma Gypsies: The original travellers

Published Aug 13, 2013 03:42pm


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‘In Gypsy culture, a ‘millionaire’ is not a person with a million in his bank account, but someone who has spent a million, though he might now be a pauper.’

My first interaction with the Roma gypsies was in 1991. I had gone to the town of Banja Luka in Bosnia to visit some friends, while Yugoslavia was still intact. While walking in the outskirts of town, we passed by a house where two kids were playing in the courtyard. The girl must have been around six and had a broken doll in her hands. The boy looked about four and had his thumb in his mouth. What initially struck me was that both kids looked like street children from any slum area in Pakistan – brown skinned, matted black hair with defiant unwashed faces, playing barefoot in the mud.

I paused outside the low fence of the run-down house and greeted them. The girl just stared at me with a blank expression on her face. The little boy took one look at me, turned around, dropped his pants and stuck his buttocks out at me! I was shocked, amused and insulted at the same time, to be thus ‘mooned’ by this little rascal! My host just laughed and said, “These are Roma gypsies, thieves and vagabonds, don’t mind them. They don’t have regard for anything, but they’re great musicians!”

My second encounter with a gypsy was in a pub in Zagreb – Croatia about a year later. A tough menacing looking teenager, with scars all over his face and tattoos on his arm, was playing pool. He was introduced to me as Tyson. When he discovered that I was from Pakistan, he hugged me warmly and told me that as he was a Roma, his ancestors were also from India. I ran across him a few years later, on a dark road, returning home after a rough night. He was completely drunk and half crazed and almost mugged me, but then suddenly recognised me and started crying. He made me promise to return the next day so that he could take me home and introduce me to his wife. I was so shook up that I avoided that road from then on.

They say that the Gypsies migrated to Europe about a thousand to a thousand and five hundred years ago from the areas of Sindh and Rajasthan. There is a myth that tells about how the Sassanid Monarch, Bahram Gul, who ruled Persia during the 5th century, imported around 10,000 musicians and dancers from Hindustan, and established their colonies all over his country. According to popular theories, many of these ‘ancient Meerasis’ continued their migration to Byzantine and Europe and are the predecessors of the Gypsies.

Certainly the Gypsies of Europe today have music and dance in their veins. They have deeply influenced the music of Russia, the Mediterranean and the Balkans. The largest tribe of Gypsies are settled in Central Europe, and call themselves ‘Roma’. Their cousins in Northern Europe call themselves ‘Zintis’, which could be derived from ‘Sindhis’, since their ancestors migrated from around the Sindhu River.

The Gypsies who arrived in Spain later integrated with the Sephardic Jews and Moorish Arabs, and gave birth to Flamenco music. Indeed Flamenco dance today can be seen to closely resemble Indian classical dance.

The Romany language is a strange mixture of Sanskrit, Prakrit, Persian, Turkic and Slavic languages. Counting in Romany from ‘one to 10’ is the same as in Urdu, as well as several words, such as, ‘ankh’, ‘naak’, kaan’, ‘paani’... The features of the Roma people stand out in Europe. They look more Indian and Pakistani than anything else, though usually more rugged and defiant.

The features of the Roma people stand out in Europe. They look more Indian and Pakistani than anything else. -Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Faces of the Roma.
The features of the Roma people stand out in Europe. They look more Indian and Pakistani than anything else. -Photo by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Faces of the Roma.

There is a lot of superstition associated with the Gypsies. They are feared and persecuted at the same time. In most countries, especially Romania, Poland and Russia, there are a lot of hate crimes against them, as well as state persecution. Yet, everyone respects their music and wonders about their rich mythology and travelling way of life.

Though there have been several people of the Gypsy origin who have excelled in their respective fields, their most notable contribution has been towards the arts. Several great musicians around the world have been of Romany origin, such as Django Reinhardt, the Belgian-born virtuoso guitarist and composer and inventor of the ‘Gypsy jazz’ style of guitar playing; and Robert Plant, the vocalist and lyricist of the British rock band, Led Zeppelin. Even actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Yul Brynner come from a Romany background.

Several attempts to make the Roma conform to modern society have been unsuccessful, due to a lack of understanding of their rebellious nature towards ‘civilized’ society. Gypsy folklore, music and poetry, and a strict code of conduct towards each other is based upon a wandering and persecuted existence. And even if educated Europeans might mock or look down upon Gypsies, they still fear their curses and believe in their fortune telling powers.

Taraf De Haidouks - Rind De Hore.

The Gypsy way of life always celebrates the ‘here and now’. In Gypsy culture, a ‘millionaire’ is not a person with a million in his bank account, but someone who has spent a million, though he might now be a pauper.

The Roma refuse to compromise with modern society and settle down, even at the cost of losing their independence. As they say in Romany,

Yekka buliasa nashti beshes pe done grastede
With one behind, you cannot sit on two horses

More on the Roma Gypsies:

Faces of the Roma.

Author Image

Arieb Azhar is a singer songwriter based in Islamabad. He studied Philosophy and Indology from the University of Zagreb in Croatia, where he also used to lead an Irish Celtic World Music band.

Learn more about him here.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (54) Closed

M. Emad Aug 13, 2013 02:42pm

Roma Gypsis are originally ancient Punjabi people. Many similarities between the two in language (old Punjabi), social customs, folk tunes/dances and appearance.

It is sad that Nazis killed thousands of Romas. Even today they are prosecuted in Europe. Pakistan (or Punjab) government and people should help their distant relative --- the Roma Gypsies.

Rishi Aug 13, 2013 03:05pm

Always love your articles Arieb, informative, cultural, and freshening. Way to go.

Best Regards Rishi

intazar ali Aug 13, 2013 03:16pm

i was in romania i met some gypsies they are called tsigan there one thing i admired they always respected us (people from pakistan or india) very much their culture is same as in my beloved country, they also look like pakistani people that was really amazing for me

Ahmer Aug 13, 2013 03:26pm

Amazing article. Thank you so very much for this. Wealth of information. Thanks again.

NotNeeded Aug 13, 2013 03:32pm

Very nice article :)

Mohammed Aug 13, 2013 04:02pm

I just wish they stopped trying to steal things wherever they go. If they come to a place near you, watch the petty crime rate increase dramatically!

habib Aug 13, 2013 04:43pm

i live in switzerland and , yes, i feel as gypsy as it gets! looks and all.. though my defiance is well masked in free art!

Chaman Aug 13, 2013 04:47pm

Met many in Spain and Poland. A teen girl muttered the word Ludhiana. I could not. Know more from her because te cops case them away from all tourist places. They all look Indians

Sikander Aug 13, 2013 04:49pm

Great article, but i would slightly differ with the writer, where he states that they all Indians and Pakistanis look like gypsies, well at least for Pakistan i can say we all do not look like them, the Pashtun belt in Pakistan many of their ancestors specially from Swat Valley and Chitral hail from Greek ancestory, because Pakistan in itself is a diverse country.

Tamil selvan Aug 13, 2013 04:50pm

They are the original people from the Maurya and Gupta empire and migrated since the times of Greek influence in Western India today's Punjab, Rajastan, Pakistan and Afganistan. Guitar originated from Sitar too

Vic Mathias Aug 13, 2013 04:50pm

Thanks to the author for a great article. Although originally from India, I have spent time in Egypt and speak Egyptian Arabic. Once you get to know the local culture in Cairo, you get to know that there are many Gypsies living in Cairo (and possibly elsewhere in Egypt). The word Gypsy is a derivative of Egyptian as Europeans believed they came from Egypt. Regardless, the belly dancing in Egypt was apparently an art form that was practiced originally by the Gypsies, and later on picked up by others. So next time you get fascinated by the belly dance, just remember that that also had its origins in the subcontinent. When it comes to music and dance, perhaps the subcontinent is the Umm al Duniya!

Sikander Aug 13, 2013 04:51pm

@intazar ali: Not all Pakistanis look like them, such as those from Pashtun dominated areas

FactCheck Aug 13, 2013 05:41pm

Thousand to fifteen hundred years ago, there was no Pakistan. While the author is mostly correct historically his insistence to make Pakistan thousand year old shows his bias.

As far as gypsy history is concerned, every one already know where they originated from. Simple Google search would give you lot of information on their history.

Sm Aug 13, 2013 05:51pm

@M. Emad: I think as far as Gypsies' origin is concerned they used to be inhabitants of Sindh Valley and not Punjab.

L.K. Aug 13, 2013 06:04pm

@intazar ali: I remember I was in Romania with some pakistani colleagues and a gypsy woman with kids approached us. When she learned that the one I was strolling toogether with was from Pakistan she was delighted and started to speak in her language. My colleauge looked astonished at me and said: "She speaks urdu. I can understand her!". A magical moment.

fatimah Aug 13, 2013 06:20pm

Superb peice! Though i haven't personally encountered them but those appearing in movies and in this particular video r more resembling the Persian or Turkish countrymen in their culture (dressing, dance & music) and features. No discernible commonality can be noticed between them and Sindhis/ Punjabis/ Rajhastanis or even with people belonging to northern areas of Pakistan.

Magister Aug 13, 2013 06:31pm

Roma were probably from Jaat tribe who were found to be very unreliable for the Sassind empire who put them on the western border of their empire near Armenia and Syria. When Byzantine empire was able to conquer these lands they again moved them to the western reaches of their empire namely the Balkans and from there they spread through Europe. Also to note that great composers Franz Liszt and Bela Bartok were also influenced by Roma music. Roma community is also noted for its strict rules on no "relations" before marriage.

Faz Agha Aug 13, 2013 07:18pm

Nice job!, I met few flamenco singing Gypsy families in Spain Andalusia and yes they look a lot like us and sorta sing and dance like us. I use to be great fan of Gypsy Kings, that do a great job in mixing, flamenco Rumba etc.

AFAQ Aug 13, 2013 07:45pm

Great example of European discrimination. Their ancestor arrived few century back in Europe and still they are roaming no permanent statement.

Muhammad Ahmed Mufti Aug 13, 2013 08:04pm

I remember Roma people from my childhood in Belgrade. At the time the locals called them Chi-Ganis". BTW these people do not resemble Indians. Roma are far good looking than Indians. Indians I believe should learn to admire their race instead of making desperate attempts to get related with Germans and Roma nations.

joe smith Aug 13, 2013 08:15pm

Urdu as I understand is a language which came into being about 300 years ago in Delhi; a mixture of Hindi,Farsi and Arabic. How could the Roma being speaking Urdu when the probably left 1000 - 2000 years ago. A DNA analysis would solve this issue.

kautiliya Aug 13, 2013 09:03pm

Great article.Keep up the good work.

Irfan Butt Aug 13, 2013 09:37pm

@FactCheck: Can you get off your high horse sir? Why everything has to be so literal? The writer simply refers to the land that is now part of Pakistan.

Pacer Aug 13, 2013 09:47pm

@FactCheck: The country states that existed 1500-1000 years ago around the Indus would be unrecognizable to the readers today. In the modern world people who live along Indus call themselves Pakistanis. We Pakistanis didn't descend from the sky. We were here 100 years ago we were here 1000 years ago, you cant take our history away from us just because you don't want to recognize Pakistan even after 66 years of partition

Ratkiia Aug 13, 2013 09:50pm

@Sikander : All Pakistanis look Arab.

Naziha Aug 13, 2013 10:19pm

Beautiful article, every time I talk to the gypsies they say that Europeans mistakenly thought they were Egyptians so they called them Egypsies and then Gypsies, they are Sindhis. The author has done his research and I am a big fan.

Observer Aug 13, 2013 10:47pm

@FactCheck: Thousand to fifteen hundred years ago, India did not exist either. The expression "India" was first used by the British and adopted by the newly formed dominion since 1947. There is a great deal of confusion between the region referred to as "India" and the country called "India".

Pankaj Patel Aug 13, 2013 10:48pm

Yes they do look like us,I met some in Italian riviera but I was scared by tour guide to keep away because they are thieves.I did try to communicate with a hawker in Venice but he could hardly speak English.They are mostly from Rajastan, Kutch desert area and their look and dress seems similar to those I saw such people in north Gujarat in early fifties.They have assimilated in India because of government program called Bhatakta lok punarvasvat yojana(Rehabilitation of migratory people) In India too they were thieves and thugs but were also street dancers and street magicians and snake charmers.They never lived at one place probably they had to move before they get caught.They seem to have migrated from India long before Islamic invasions.

Pa Aug 13, 2013 11:50pm

@Sikander : The hundred in Romany is SHEL. How about it now

Raj Aug 13, 2013 11:57pm

According to some sources, these gypsies are the descendants of Hindu slaves taken by conquering invaders into India for the last thousand years. Upon freedom, they could not come back to India because of hostile territories still existed back home, instead they migrated towards Europe.

Abdur R.Jalalzai Aug 14, 2013 12:06am

These gypsies are still present in parts of pakistan specially in dist.Loralai in Balochistan and D.I.Khan.They are called "Chachgars".Before the wave of Islamization they entertained people with music and dance.They have exactly the same customs as described.These days ,however their womanfolk beg in the streets while the men stay home enjoying "Dogfights" and partridge fights.

Shamoon Aug 14, 2013 12:13am

it is good to see a young man from Pakistan, like Arieb Azhar, who is a musician, a song writer and an intellectual in his own right.... Reading the comments on the article, it seems astonishing that the people from subcontinent are settled all over the world. Aren't we all, who are settled in the lands faraway from our homeland, make up modern Gypsies, following the footsteps who left the land long before us. It is also amazing that after all these years the gypsies consider us from back home. Aren't they better people to give us a smile, while we in Pakistan hate each other based on our ethnicity.

Parvez Aug 14, 2013 01:41am

Thank God you're writing of stuff that is completely different and immensly interesting.

Dilsson Aug 14, 2013 01:56am

Roma people are very nice people. They have a lot of respect for Pakistanis abroad. In fact they own us more than we do.

Balma Aug 14, 2013 02:44am

I believe it is in Hungary where Indian government had built a school for the Roma people. The school was name after Mahatama Gandhi.

Hafeez Aug 14, 2013 04:33am

I think with thousands year of mankind history, there had been always migrations for one reason or the other. You might be aware of that Hitler called Germans as Arians and some of the tribes in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan (and India) are Arians. So Gipsy's might have migrated from sub-continent (Punjab, Sindh and Rajhistan). I read an article back in 1996 in The Guardian (if remember correctly) on Gypsy's. The article sated many commonalities in their language in spite of their current location. Incidentally many of the words were either almost the same as here in Pakistan or appeared to be derivatives of each other. While migrating many of them specialized (or were already specialist) in some fields like singing, music, fortune teller etc. As they were roaming around from one place to another, locals were not treating them properly. It is true even today as immigrants do face problem when they go to new lands unless the completely overpowered the locals. Hence their habit of stealing and mugging are but natural.

Anyway the article and all the comments are great and I enjoyed.

Kishore Aug 14, 2013 06:25am

Sensual Writing, simple yet intriguing. Kudos to the writer. A big Thank you.

musing Aug 14, 2013 08:48am

Although people in Pakistan believe that they are of Arabic or Mughal descent. So theoretically Gypsies should be Indian origin only?

Rizwan Aug 14, 2013 09:04am

Thank you Dawn and Arieb Azhar for writing and publishing such a nice piece of article. Superb!

Shahryar Shirazi Aug 14, 2013 09:43am

@FactCheck: The author has used Pakistan in the present day context. i.e "They look like Pakistanis" etc. Through out the article he has maintained, it was Hindustan, Sindh etc etc. Please don't bring your bias into this forum. Some times use your judgment too ...

BTW, this is an amazing article. Traveling earlier this year from Portugal to Frankfurt, the guy sitting next to me mentioned that I look like a gypsy. Shahryar.

Shahryar Shirazi Aug 14, 2013 09:45am

@M. Emad: Really ? we have not been able to rescue the stranded Pakistanis from Bangladesh in more than 40 years. Furthermore, I think protecting the Shias, Balochs, Ahmedi's shall be a priority - not the Gypsy's. Shahryar.

Zeel Aug 14, 2013 10:36am

But I have heard that 99% of Pakistanis think that they look like Saudis :-)

Indranil Biswas Aug 14, 2013 10:37am

Hitler sent more than a million Gypsies to gas chamber. Somehow this is not so well remembered, unlike the other victims of gas chamber.

darshik Aug 14, 2013 10:59am

I have noticed the language similarity between Hindi/Urdu with the KUrds of Turkey. If you do a research on this you will feel like we have same the ancestry. Those who are interested in it can do a research KURD and Hindi. Its astonishing!!

NAVAL Aug 14, 2013 11:30am

@Faz Agha: They are in fact hindus, taken forcibly by ghazni and other invaders, who somehow escaped from their clutch and roamed here end there for thousands of year

salam Aug 14, 2013 04:34pm

Thank you for the informative article. I know profiling is not right, but I have been deprived of about $ 500s while walking around Prague by a Roma gypsy. In a recent CBC ( Canadian Broadcasting Corp. ) news segment they discussed the plight of Hungarian Romas seeking political asylum/refugee status in Canada, because of widespread discrimination and insecurity in Hungary; and they interviewed a Hungarian Roma, who in fact was a Member of the European Parliament, seeking refuge here. She did look very Indian/Pakistani.

indian Aug 14, 2013 06:12pm

Frankly speaking, Roma gypsies don't look indian. They look more like Iranians or Armenians. I have seen Roma gypsies while I was in Germany and I can vouch that they don't look indian. I am not sure how the author got the idea that they look indian. Did Indians look different 1500 years back?

indian Aug 14, 2013 06:13pm

@AFAQ: Better than Pakistani discrimination of Ahmediyas wherein a noble prize winner from Ahmediya community was not even considered a pakistani

Mirna Aug 15, 2013 04:03am

Thanks for such an informative piece, Arieb. There are so many links between the Balkans and the Subcontinent that needs to be explored, especially those mediated by the Ottoman Empire (food, literature, languages, different customs and everyday life rituals, etc.). I hope that your article about Roma people are just the beginning of it. Or perhaps it would be interesting to hear your own story as well as the stories of Pakistanis living in this part of the world (my partner, for instance). Lijep pozdrav iz Hrvatske, we are sorry that you've left!


Mirna Aug 15, 2013 04:04am

@Dilsson: Yes, they do. Especially when they trade their EU passports for money in Glasgow South. :)

Sikander Aug 15, 2013 05:39pm

@Ratkiia: Sorry, i dont agree with you not all some maybe, many look like persian or greek

LR Aug 15, 2013 08:32pm

Wondering around the Louvre in Paris aimlessly and somewhat lost as a first time visitor ( without french), recently, I must have looked quite gullible. A young man with a dark complexion, like mine, stooped me with a brass ring in his hand which he purportedly picked up from the sidewalk, wanting to know if this 'gold' ring was mine. When told 'no' he kept insisting it was mine when I walked off with another emphatic 'no'.

Within fifteen minutes and another 150 yards down the road another young lady, with the same complexion, stopped me with another 'gold' ring insisting it was mine. On being told 'no' in no uncertain terms she finally came out clean. Flashing a big smile wanted to know if I could spare a few Euros. They are, in all likely hood, people from our subcontinent. Why this predicament in this day and age ? Perhaps their history, as well as ours, has a lot to answer.

tehmina Aug 15, 2013 11:57pm

Interesting article, having lived in Central Asia and Eastern Europe I have seen the discrimination faced by the Roma. In Uzbekistan the term for Roma is actually "Multani", refering to their origins from our part of the world. An interesting perspective is offered by Tony Gatlif, himself a Roma, in his documentary "Latcho Drom".

Abhi Aug 16, 2013 07:21am

@Hafeez: You mean "Aryans"