They forgot who they were?

Romani girl from Czechia

Right now I am working on a piece about Romani for my Substack. The first clear mention of Romani in Europe is in Crete in 1322. This is certainly postdated their arrival, but there is a good amount of circumstantial linguistic and genetic evidence that they left the Indian subcontinent not much earlier than 1000 AD.

Genetically on the whole the Romani are ~30% South Asian in ancestry (some groups and individuals are closer to 50%, others to 20%). Even besides this fact, just physical inspection of some of the Romani makes it clear what part of their origins are. Their language is similar enough to other Indo-Aryan languages that a Hungarian Reformed theologian who learned some Sinhalese at a seminary in the Netherlands in the 18th century was the first to identify that it was Indo-Aryan because of its similarity. Some lascars did the same in the United Kingdom when they overheard Romani talking to each other in Wales.

But this brings me to a curious fact: the Romani seem to have forgotten their Indian origins by the time they arrived in Europe, after a sojourn of centuries in the Middle East. The Romani are nomadic people who have an oral culture. There is a great deal they remember. The term for a Christian “cross” in Romani is trushul. But they forgot where they came from.

40 thoughts on “They forgot who they were?

  1. Razib, I don’t know why you were inspired to make this post in the first place. But the Romani migration forms a central element in, let’s say, “a realtime test replication of OIT”

    1. The land route was over Iran, Turkey and then from the staging ground of the Balkans – they seemed to have done a star-type expansion all over Europe. They left India between the 6th – 8th centuries AD, because seem to have followed the Silk routes of the Byzantine – Tang dynasty empires. They took approximately 600 years to end up in Germany.

    2. Romani languages lack retroflexion – basically they lost it during their journeys! This is real data that falsifies one of linguistics key assertions – that Sanskrit or a Prakrit could not have been higher up on the PIE succession list since they have retroflexion. The reverse is not true – Portuguese, Dutch and English who came to Asia and formed creoles did not develop retroflexion.

    3. Is it possible to make a significant assertion about the size of the original migrant group based on genetics? Today they are around 8 million Roma in the EU. I cannot guess how large the original group would have been – 100K? The size of a medium sized city!

    1. You’re incorrect – Indian English definitely has retroflexion. The dental unvoiced and voiced fricatives (represented by th) in standard English shift to denti-alveolar unvoiced affricate and voiced stop respectively in Indian English, while the English alveolar stops shift to retroflex stops.

      This is why westerners perceive the authentic pronunciation of “Thai” (which is usually pronounced closer to a denti-alveolar affricate) as allophonic with “Tai” while Indians perceive it as “thigh”.

      1. Indian English definitely has retroflexion

        Of course, it has. It is spoken by Indians – it has to have retroflexion!! What is so disruptive about it?

        Did any of the Englishmen who spent inordinately long times in India – like Corbett who was second generation – develop retroflexion? Or Ruskin Bond? Have the modern Australians developed retroflexion after spending so much time in contact with the aboriginals? Retroflexion can be lost, not gained. At least that is the modern experience.

        1. Linguistic change tends to happen after generations of contact / interbreeding, not simply from spending time in a country. A better analogy would be Anglo-Indians, e.g. from Bow Barracks – their English certainly demonstrates the same retroflexion as their Indian neighbors.

          1. How far have you travelled from your original argument?Anglo-Indians use retroflexion only why speaking Indian languages. They owned the largest number of finishing schools in India for Spoken English to correct heavy accents.
            If you are going to claim that Anglo Indians speak like Apu, thats just exaggeration. Even their names do not have retroflex consonants. Very thin arguments!

        2. There are several Slavic languages (Polish for sure, I think Russian too) that have retroflexion. If Proto-Indo-EUropean didn’t have retroflex sounds, then that’s evidence that languages can gain it over time.

  2. 3. Is it possible to make a significant assertion about the size of the original migrant group based on genetics? Today they are around 8 million Roma in the EU. I cannot guess how large the original group would have been – 100K? The size of a medium sized city!

    the genetic data indicates a ‘breeding population’ in the range of 1,000-5,000. a rule of thumb is that this is 30% or so of the total census population. so the exit population may actually have been closer to 5-15,000

    The land route was over Iran, Turkey and then from the staging ground of the Balkans – they seemed to have done a star-type expansion all over Europe. They left India between the 6th – 8th centuries AD, because seem to have followed the Silk routes of the Byzantine – Tang dynasty empires. They took approximately 600 years to end up in Germany.

    after doing a lot of reading i think it is more likely that they left ~1000 AD. the european romani all have some middle eastern (mostly armenian), but really not that much, so it was a fast traversion. the first evidence of romani in europe are in crete in 1321, and all of them have balkan admixture (the NE european ones have n european and the gitanos have spanish)

    the genetic data indicates mixing in the balkans *around* 1000 AD

    1. ..so the exit population may actually have been closer to 5-15,000

      Thanks, Razib. I was pegging the lower estimate to 40K.

  3. The Roma/gypsies are a fascinating bunch of people – musical and full of life. I was at the annual Gypsy festival in St Marie de la Mer, a charming little seaside town in the Camargue a few years ago and it was a chaotic, colourful affair full of great street music and festivity. It’s a devoutly catholic festival, where after the mass the statue of the black Mary is paraded through the narrow streets of the town towards the sea, pulled in a chariot by the faithful – a scene reminiscent of a Tamil thiruvizha or Ganesh chaturthi in Maharashtra.

    https://www.avignon-et-provence.com/en/traditions/gypsys-pilgrimage-saintes-maries-de-mer

    The gypsies at the festival were primarily from France and Spain, through a few from farther afield. While there was a clear gypsy ‘look’ that could be identified, there was a wide variation in features even within members of a family as one sees in India. And I don’t agree that they forgot where they came from – myself and a friend I went with were the only legit Indians that we could see at the festival, and there were many gypsies who came up to us saying things along the lines of ‘we’re long lost brothers’, etc. And certain tribes like the Sinti for example even remembered that they came from Sindh. The gypsy camps on the outskirts of town were squalid and dirty (another south asian trait, maybe!) but fun places nonetheless.

    Unrelated qn – I’ve heard that the gypsies originated from the south asian slaves taken by Timur to central asia, how true is this? There’s a story that he realised that he couldn’t take many across the mountains so he killed some while set some others free, who continued westwards towards Europe…

    1. “I’ve heard that the gypsies originated from the south asian slaves taken by Timur to central asia, how true is this?”

      IMHO, almost certainly false. Genetics and linguistics point to a date a few hundred years earlier, and there isn’t meaningful Central Asian admixture.

  4. This seems to be a recurring pattern. Genetic testing showed that my mother’s mitochondria trace to the gypsies (Romanichal, specifically), and she had no idea.

  5. Razib’s estimate of the size of exit population is stunning. And his tweet about German gypsy hunts was quite shocking and sad. It seems these poor people have borne the worst of all racism in Europe.

    Similar to Siddharth, I also in limited interactions have found they are indeed aware of where they came from (though this may be a modern phenomenon). They are very curious about the Indian link.

    The ‘black Mary’ as shown in Siddharth’s link is interesting – clear allusions to Kali etc. In fact mother Mary worship across much of the new world especially and even in Southern Europe makes you wonder.

    Finally I too would like to know if these people made this exodus as part of a Turkic raid or invasion. Are they refugees from a raid by ghazni or timur? But I suppose we’ll never truly know the answer.

    1. Similar to Siddharth, I also in limited interactions have found they are indeed aware of where they came from (though this may be a modern phenomenon). They are very curious about the Indian link.

      it’s modern. and yes they are aware. some convert to Hinduism.

    1. @thewarlock
      Second this. There should also be something like this for the descendents of indentured labourers.

    2. “Roma need a right of return to India”
      Dude. You trolling? Have you been to India? It hurts to say this but what need does a poor and crowded country have for more people, especially other poor people who don’t have any useful skills to bring to the table (apart from great jazz-fusion music, which I’m a big fan of)

      1. I was partly exaggerating for hyperbole as sweeping statements like ‘let’s bring the gypsies back’ are laughable but there is a case for India to speak up for the way the gypsies are treated in Europe since this is essentially a voiceless and exploited community at the mercy of often hostile host countries

        1. Listen India is a sucky place to live, if you are not rich and connected. But some of these people are in possibly even shittier situations in Europe, depending on the things they value in life.

          A CAA type option would not really be heavily utilized. But it should be given as an option for these people. The same for the indentured servant crowd descendents in places like Fiji and Guyana.

        2. Truthfully I think Canada and the US should take in the gypsies/Roma, it would be a win win situation. Eastern Europeans definitely don’t want the Roma and I doubt the Roma particularly like living in unfriendly host countries either.

  6. Another far less well known and much smaller probable migration from South Asia to Europe (which genetic, linguistic and cultural evidence establish was distinct from the Romani migration), in the same general historical era as the Romani migration, was the migration of the ancestors of the people of Cres Island, Croatia. They probably made their way their from a population of Havids of South India, probably leaving for the Near East around the 5th century CE, probably on a religious missionary mission of some sort, with a relocation in the context of Byzantine-Islamic wars to Cres Island in or shortly after 841 CE, following the sack of the island in those wars. Their relocation to Cres Island and subsequent ability to maintain a distinct identity parallels the experiences of the better known Maronite Church. http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com/2010/02/cres-islands-facinating-genetic-history.html

  7. in one of the youtube videos from romania, they showed fire lit as is done when a death happens in india. so they are still having lots of hindu beliefs and adjusting them with the christian faith.

  8. Time to share a couple of anecdotes.

    Had a Romanian friend, who though otherwise quite openminded, did not think highly of the Romas in his country (“untidy, dirty, disruptive and thieving”). Have heard/read similar sentiments from people from various other European countries. These sentiments have a racial undertone, no doubt, but are also driven by actual facts on the ground. Why the Romas are this way is another question, and may be tied to who they were in India (will come to that).

    Had a first hand experience with a Gypsy in the US. He somehow convinced a relative to let him repair the front bumper of a car, and then ran away with a measly hundred dollars while leaving the car unfinished (and spending 2-3 hours on it). I spoke with him, and he brought up the Indian connection, talked about the similarities in languages (Do, Teen or something like that for 2,3..some other words), and was genuinely one of those Roma people originally from Europe. He confirmed the stereotype of the thieving gypsy.

    Finally, my mother grew up in a village in Rajasthan. She narrated to me that when she was young, bands of Vanjaras (or Banjaras in Northern Hindi, nomadic groups of people) would occasionally come to the village, camp on the outskirts, and offer small services (sharpening knives etc) in addition to dancing, entertainment. Once word spread that a camp had been set up, the village people would ensure that their belongings were properly secured, and hidden, because these Vanjaras were notorious for stealing from the villages in the thick of night (or sometimes during the day). People would be extra vigilant when they were around.

    Romas are said to be related to these Rajasthani/Northwest Indian groups like Vanjaras, and to this day have a similar lifestyle, and professions. Looks like they are just continuing what they have always done. They were on the fringes of Indian society, and now they are the same in Europe.

    None of this to justify the horrible persecution of Romas by Nazis and others, or the ongoing discrimination and racism they face to this day in Europe. No behavior can justify these horrendous acts.

    1. @lurker
      >Romas are said to be related to these Rajasthani/Northwest Indian groups like Vanjaras, and to this day have a similar lifestyle, and professions. Looks like they are just continuing what they have always done.<

      Have looked at this the same way. More important than their origins in India, is that they are from a very distinct type of Indian. "Banjara", "Doma", "Lambani", ect. India has its own gypsys. The Lambani's, though half a millennium removed from Rajasthan, have camps thousands of kilometers away in the deccan and even further away in Tamil Nadu called "tandas". Their manner of dressing is utterly unlike the settled communities and resembles their distant kin communities in Rajasthan, as does their language. Some scholars have said that they spread along the caravan routes and offered petty services to military camps including offering auxiliary supply carriage. If they can traverse 2000+ kms in the subcontinent and maintain their folkways and separateness (they don't even settle within the villages), then persisting over generations 5-6000km to Romania along established routes by the same MO isn't all that extraordinary. I doubt it was even "leaving home" but just being on the road.

  9. @Mohan When I looked at the historical context in light of the linguistic and genetic evidence in a deep dive of research in 2012, the conclusion that I reached was that the most plausible candidate as a cause of the “Gypsy exodus” from South Asia would be the circumstances surrounding the fall of the Gujara-Praihara empire ca. 1018 CE when the capital city was sacked by Muslim invaders (a second pillaging of the city following its capture by another Indian dynasty in 916 that was short lived). It isn’t the only possibility, but I haven’t found any other historical events in this reasonably well documented historic era that seem more likely.

  10. fwiw, i central asian observers talk about a massive number indian slaves in the cities of afghanistan. the romani seem to have cultural coherency, so not sure they were from this. but the timing is right re 1000 AD

    1. ‘Hindukush’ means killer of Hindus and the name given to mountains which claimed lot of lives as they were marched across it

  11. Why does their name invoke the city of Rome? Or Romanian ethnic group?

    Gypsie makes you think of Egypt. Romani makes you think of Rome. Yet they are from India.

    Talk about a confusing ethnic group.

    1. Gypsy is derivative of Egyptian. It was based upon the incorrect assumption of Europeans encountering them at the time that the name was attached to the ethnic group, that they were Egyptians based upon descriptions in books of what Egyptians looked like (the people having done so having never seen actual Egyptians).

  12. The common Roma in Europe are not really aware of their Indian origins nor do they care about some long lost “brown brothers”. They firmly consider themselves Europeans with a unique culture, code of honor and strong clan affinities. That said racism against Roma is kind of fair game in Europe and they are maligned as dirty uncivilized criminals and beggars. Discrimination studies from Eastern Europe are shocking to say the least. Even if the Roma want to integrate into the mainstream they face such massive discrimination that they have very little chance.

    Interesting that the first account is from an Island and relatively late. You would think that a group of swarthy aliens setting up camp in the Balkans would have immediately come to attention.

  13. The discrimination against the Roma in Europe is still so bad that in some cases it amounts to persecution and they receive asylum in places like the US and Canada.

    India should let them come back, as well, although of course only few would avail themselves of that option. But still, it’s a matter of principle.

  14. @ohwilleke,

    Thanks for the answer. That makes sense. I remember at 13 I tried to figure out where Gypsies came from and I said Egypt because the name sounds similar. There were some Gypsies who went to my church.

  15. I don’t think they forgot who they were. They only forgot the geographic route.

    They must have some name for their original homeland (Rajasthan?) in their own language.

  16. IMHO,

    The most likely time period for the migration of the Roma from their Indian homeland, was the early 5th century CE, when, as per the 11th century Shahnamah, the Sassanian king Bahram Gur requested from his contemporary Indian king, who was also his father-in-law, a large group of musicians, who could travel across his vast dominion entertaining the local peasantry. The Indian king sent 10,000 of them (consistent with Razib’s estimation). However, after a year, Bahram Gur was quite angry with the wasteful behaviour of these people and ordered them to get out from his dominion. The Shahnamah even states that from that period on, these musicians have been wondering all over the world.

    To my knowledge, there is no other recorded evidence, supporting alternative scenarios, that can rival this clear testimony.

    1. According to the net: Ferdowsi started writing the Shahnameh in 977 and completed it on 8 March 1010.

      So Ferdowsi may have written this as very recent history from his perspective.

      If the gypsies left in the 500s AD, he could have mentioned that, but he seems to make it a more recent event.

  17. There are some very famous European footballers of Romani descent – Eric Cantona, Andrea Pirlo, Hristo Stoichkov.

    Pirlo’s granfather was a Sinti from Eastern Europe who migrated to Italy. According to a story, he couldn’t speak Italian so some local official gave him the name ‘pirla’, which apparently means dickhead in Italian. His grandson is now considered one of the classiest footballers of his generation.

    Probably the coolest representation I’ve seen of gypsies is Brad Pitt in Snatch. Anything else come to mind?

  18. Wow those Roma women are HOT. I’m so surprised that many look IDENTICAL to Indians.

    Quick facts: Charlie Chaplin and Robert Plant were both Gypsies/Romas!

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