The Lost Tribes of India

The history of the ethnic group, known collectively as the “Gypsies,” is a long and muddled one. For a long time, no one knew their origins. Now as we’re beginning to unravel their past, their future is uncertain. But what is certain is an underlying culture that connects Gypsies regardless of what part of the world they are settled in.

Who are you and whence do you come?
Why have you forgotten yourself? Oh, my darling!
These lice-ridden Gorgios gave you dirty and false names as Lubni and Mugni, Xorasani and Osmani,
But you are Mother India’s forgotten child Ramni, now called Romni.
In fact you are the flowing Ganges water mixed with the waters of the river Nile, Euphrates and Danube.

– J.S. Pathania (re-translated from the Romani original)

It is well accepted now that the Gypsies probably originated from India. There are many legends that attest to this, as well as linguistic ties that make this conclusion all but guaranteed. Moreover, cultural similarities have led most scholars to agree with this theory. The Gypsies, or as they call themselves Roma, are a curious ethnicity that “never sleep twice in the same place never drink water twice from the same well, and never cross the same river twice in one year.” I would like to explain a very brief history of the Gypsies, and show the underlying Indian connection to this ethnic group. In recent years (especially since the fall of the Easter Bloc), the Romani have attempted to connect with their Indian past, and perhaps we should know more about these lost relatives, so we can forge closer ties. Since most Romani live in Eastern Europe, it may help Indians, and India solidify stronger ties with Eastern Europeans as well. This can be a connection with large ramifications. At the very least, we will learn more about an ethnic group that has forever been dismissed, ridiculed and downright denigrated.

The term “Gypsies” is an historical aberration, and actually originated in the region of Armenia. A few hundred years ago the Gypsies had settled into this region and formed camps in and on the outskirts of cities. One major camp was known as “Little Egypt”, because the locals believed the people were from Egypt. Thus the term Gypsies is derived from Egyptian. However, the connection to Egypt is all but completely non-existent.

There are many legends in Roma culture. Roma culture is filled with exquisite stories, and is very art-oriented, something I have always found true with our great Hindu/Indian culture. Roma culture is also very music-oriented, and there is reason to believe that there is an Indian connection to this. One very popular Roma myth explains how the Romani were forced out of India:

From Konrad Bercovici, STORY OF THE GYPSIES [1]:

We were then living on the Ganges. And our chief was a powerful chief… a man whose voice was heard over all the land and whose judgments were final. This chief had an only son whose name was Tchen.

In the land of the Hind there ruled a powerful king whose favorite wife had borne him an only child, a daughter, whom he named Gan. One day a sorcerer told this king that a man was to invade the Hind, at the head of a numerous horde and overrun the land and destroy the king and his family, and become the master of the country. The sorcerer also told him that this conqueror should be immune from every form of death, but that it was written that he would perish if he should do violence to the Gypsy.

To save his newly-born daughter, the king called our chief, Tchen’s father, whose friend he was, and it was agreed between them that the child was to be taken secretly to the tent of the Gypsy chief and only the chief’s wife would know who the child really was. Three days later our Barrosan announced to his people that his wife had given birth to a girl, and that her name was Gan…and so it was that Tchen and Gan grew up in the same tent.

When Tchen was to be wived, they asked him to choose from the girls of his tribe, but there was no one he desired. Again and again, the most beautiful girls danced before him, but he found none to his liking. In the meantime, the old chief died. Tchen threatened to kill himself, for he realized that he loved his own sister. So his mother told him that Gan was the daughter of the king of the Hind and not his sister.

The people were torn in two; those who agreed that everything the young chief did was right, and the other which swore not to live under a chief who married his own sister. Tchen dared not tell the truth, lest the invader destroy Gan.

Meanwhile one of Skender’s generals came down like a cyclone upon the land of the Hind, devastating and destroying everything. As the sorcerer had foretold, the king of the Hind was killed with all his wives…their bones left under a pile of stones at the ruined palace.
One of the Gypsies approached this great conqueror to ask him for a judgment on a sister marrying a brother… but the conqueror looked at him with scorn and hit him a fatal blow on the head. At that moment, the great general and his horse burst and crumbled like a clay pot tossed on a rock. The wind blew his remains into the desert.

Those who opposed Tchen pursued him and his followers to the end of the land and beyond. Those who had remained faithful to their chief were called “Tchen-Gans” …meaning brothers who married their sisters. And a great sorcerer cursed Tchen and those following him, saying that they should forever wander over the face of the earth, never sleep twice in the same place never drink water twice from the same well, and never cross the same river twice in one year.

Though this particular legend suggests the Roma are from the Ganges region of India, the veracity of such legends is tough to measure. For centuries the origins of the Gypsies were shrouded in mystery. Here today and gone tomorrow, these banks of dark-skinned nomads with strange habits aroused the curiosity of sedentary populations, and many writers constructed a variety of often far-fetched hypotheses in an attempt to explain the enigma.

In the nineteenth century, although scientific investigation had already provided the answer, the most fantastic myths were still being made.

This jumble of ingenious superstitions and shaky hypotheses did not survive serious study of the language of the Gypsies. As early as during the Renaissance scholars had some notions of this language, but they did not connect it to any linguistic group nor locate the area in which it originated. At the end of the eighteenth century, however, scholars were able to determine the origin of the Gypsies on the basis of scientific evidence.

Since then eminent linguists have confirmed the analyses of these early scholars. The grammar and vocabulary of the language of the Gypsies are close to those of Sanskrit and to such living languages as Kashmiri, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Nepali. Modern scholars no longer doubt that the Gypsies originated in India, but many problems concerning ethnic group, social class, and the period of their earliest migrations still need to be elucidated.

Linguistics is the discipline best able to locate the origin of the Gypsies, but anthropology, medical science and ethnology also have a contribution to make.

Documentation on the period that may be called “the prehistory of the Gypsies” is extremely limited. The writers of ancient India were only interested in gods and kings, and paid scant attention to the people known as the Zott, the Jat, the Luli, the Nuri, or the Dom. [2]

Today it is known that Romani, the language of the Gypsies, is a sister language of Sanskrit. This was first proven by a German philologist, H.M.G. Grellman, in the late eighteenth century, who conducted a study of Romani words (later consolidated in a fifteen page catalogue) and compared it to Sanskrit, finding at least a third of them to be of Hindu origin. Future comparisons yielded the discovery that the grammatical construction and vocabulary of Romani very closely resembles that of the language spoken by the Jats, a nomadic tribe of northwestern India. [3]

Many now believe that the Roma were a group from NorthWest India, mainly low-caste Sudra, who left India. Many legends suggest they were banished. These people traveled through the Mid-East, and eventually reached Europe. There are three main migration periods. The first is the exodus from India. The second is the movement from the Mid-East to Europe (mainly the Armenian “Little Egypt” Region). The third has been post-World War II. The Roma were absolutely destroyed by the Nazi’s who killed them en masse (in fact the death penalty was less stringent for Jews than for the Roma. If you were 1/4 Jewish, you would be killed, but if you were 1/16th Roma, you would be put to death). This was not new, the persecution of the Gypsies began centuries prior to the 1940’s, and was a part of the Northern Europe’s cultural heritage so to speak.

Today, the Roma are dispersed into three categories, based on geography the Rom (European Roma), Lom (specifically the Armenians), and Dom (in the Mid-east, specifically Iran). These terms are all phonetically correspondent to Sanskrit’s “domba”, or modern Indian terms like dom or dum.

In Sanskrit domba means “man of low caste living by singing and music.” In modern Indian tongues the corresponding words have similar or related meanings: in Lahnda it is “menial”; in Sindhi, “caste of wandering musician”; in Panjabi, “strolling musician”; in West Pahari it means “low-caste man.” There are references to the Dom as musicians from the sixteenth century. The Dom still exist in India; they are nomads who do a number of jobs: basket-making, smithing, metalworking, scavenging, music-making. Not surprisingly, many people have leapt on a Dom theory of origins for the Gypsies.

This also makes sense in a cultural sense, since the Roma have traditionally been known for two types of work: either art/music related, or metallurgy. [3] In fact, it is the Roma’s metallurgy ability that has led many to believe they helped educate the world about the ancient Indian techniques.

By 400 A.D., we see the first mention of the group that would one day be called the Gypsies. Bahram Gur, Shah of Persia, sends for 10,000 Luri (or Zotts, depending on which translation) to be brought from the borders of India into his court. These Zotts were renowned musicians and dancers at this time. They became favorites of the Persian court, to the point that once the Caliphs took over, the Zotts (derivation of Jatts perhaps) were moved to Antioch to keep them away from the courts in case they were still sympathetic to the deposed Shah.

When they went to Antioch, they took their music, and their cattle. They were a settled people there, until c. 820 A.D., when they were forcibly moved from the area to Baghdad, then separated into smaller groups so as not to cause any more trouble for the Arabs over their cattle-grazing rights.

By 1050 A.D., the gypsies had made their way to Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Monomachus asked the Adsincani (derived from the Greek “Atsinganoi” which is the root word for various names that the gypsies are called now, such as Tzigane, Zincali, etc.) to rid his forests of the wild animals which were killing off his stock in his hunting preserve. These people were well known for their ability with animals, along with their proficiency at metalwork and music.

As the Ottoman Empire spread, so did the gypsies. They are recorded in Serbia in 1348, Bulgaria in 1378 and can be documented in Hungary in 1383. The Ottomans were actually the first to refer to the gypsies as “Egyptians” in 1396 in what is now Bulgaria. These were a useful and well-received people in the Middle East and Eastern Europe during this time on the whole. The only place that this could not be said was true was in Romania. In 1385 there is the first record of gypsy slaves. But even then, they were coveted all over for their abilities in metalwork, music and animal handling. They also became well known as proficient mercenaries for hire, their prowess on the field legendary in Hungary and Romania, both fighting for the Turks and against them.

In 1407, everything changed for the gypsies. Historians are divided as to how they came up with the idea to go to Western Europe as penitent pilgrims. To the gypsies, this “pilgrimage” is known as the Hakko Baro, or the Great Game/Scam [4]. They appeared outside of the gates of Hildesheim, Germany, with letters from King Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor, granting them safe passage through all lands under his domain. From there, they traveled to Italy, telling their story to the Pope, who in turn gave them letters of safe passage and a letter stating that all dioceses that these people come across would give them money and food.

When they showed up with these letters outside the gates of Paris in 1427, they caused quite a commotion. An alderman wrote in his journal of their approach to the gates, with the “barely clad women” telling people’s fortunes, and their men dressed in scarlet, daring you to ignore them. All in their traveling group stayed outside the gates but for their leaders, who presented the letters to the authorities in the city.

Once they appeared in Western Europe, opinions began to change on how useful and alike to others the Gypsies were. In Eastern Europe and Germany, you see legislation begin to be passed forbidding gypsies entry into certain towns. The reasoning behind these laws was to quell the idea that they gypsies were Turkish spies and traitors to whatever country they were in at the time. Unfortunately, all this seemed to do was incite more and more suspicion, which eventually made the Gypsies second-class citizens in most Europeans eyes.

By the mid-16th century, the gypsies were not even safe in Turkish-controlled lands. What was different here was the fact that the settled Gypsies were the ones being persecuted here, instead of the nomadic Gypsies. They were taxed heavily, and “persuaded” to convert to Islam, sometimes being imprisoned and/or killed for not converting.

From this time period on, Gypsies become outcasts, with the peak of dehumanization and torture appearing during World War II with the Final Solution encompassing Gypsies along with Jews. Along with the human loss from that time, we also lost many of the people who actually may have been able to answer some of the questions that historians still pose today as to the origins of this people. [4]

To the Roma the persecution during the 1940’s is as important as it is to the Jews. The Romani Anthem (International Roma organizations have attempted to codify Roma culture in an attempt to unite the various groups. The Roma now have an anthem, as well as a flag that contains a 16 spoke -as opposed to the Indian 24 spoke- Chakra) articulates the troubled history of these people [5]:

I went, I went on long roads
I met happy Roma
O Roma where do you come from,
With tents on happy roads?
O Roma, O fellow Roma

I once had a great family,
The Black Legions* murdered them
Come with me Roma from all the world
For the Romani roads have opened
Now is the time, rise up Roma now,
We will rise high if we act

O Roma, O fellow Roma

*(the Black Legions refers to the Black uniformed SS, Gestapo as well as the “Death’s Head Battalion” concentration camp units).

Today the Roma are trying to reach out to their past, and understand themselves better. Freedom after the fall of the Soviet Bloc has created an impetus to learn more about themselves. Clearly this has led them to turn their sights and hearts towards India. It is important for us Indians, and specifically us Hindus, to reach out to this community. They are a great example of the plight of Indians around the world. They have endured persecution from the Arabs, the Nazis and have been sent on Slave-ships to the Americas. They have inhabited most of the world at some point, and have been ambassadors of Indian culture and science. They are known for their metallurgy, and their music, two talents India has always been known for as well. For many Roma a new identity, which one might call “Hindupen” is growing out of an unprecedented pride in origins. [3]

In conclusion, I would like to suggest we have an appreciation for these people, who even today, are ridiculed and derided. The term “Gypsy” has a bad connotation, and is of ill-repute. It is best to know more about them, if for nothing at least to learn more about our own ancient land, which they proudly believe to be their own as well.



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