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The long road to the Dom

Prague, 26.7.2009 19:18, (ROMEA)

When groups of Roma turned up on European territory during the Middle Ages, local populations had no idea who they were as a nation or where they had come from. In some places the Roma presented themselves as pilgrims who had to travel as penitence for various reasons. Their people were said to have cast the nails used during the crucifixion, or to have failed to provide Mary with shelter when she and Jesus were fleeing the cruelty of King Herod. Those who chronicled these stories used their own imaginations to embellish them, and the fact that they were recorded in history books kept them alive in people’s minds for many years. In the beginning, European society was accommodating to the pilgrims, but over time their curiosity about them and sympathy for them were replaced by ambivalence and hatred.

Romanes is not an argot

The question of origin if the Roma has been unclear since time immemorial. In the past, many researchers and enthusiasts expended significant effort to connect Romanes with a known language and thereby discover a country which might be considered their homeland. During the course of the 18th century, Romanes was compared to a “thieves’ argot”. It was believed not to be a systematic language, but a sort of slang. However, by mid-century the Calvinist theologian Stefan Vályi, working at the university in the Dutch city of Leiden, had pointed out the significant similarity of Romanes to the language spoken by three students from the Indian city of Malabar. Samuel Augustini ab Hortis was the first to draw attention to this story in his 1775 book Cigáni v Uhorsku (Gypsies in Hungary). Augustini describes how, after returning from Holland, Vályi confirmed the meaning of approximately 1 000 Indian words he had recorded from the Indian students with the Roma living in Rábu. According to Augustini, the Roma were able “to give the meaning of the words without effort or difficulty”. Even though there are many doubts regarding this story, it led other scholars to the idea that Romanes originated in India. The first to declare the Indian origin of Romanes was Johann Rüdiger; he outlined a grammar of Sinti Romanes and compared it to Hindi.

Why did they leave?

On the basis of linguistic analysis, it is possible to estimate when the Roma ancestors left India. Given the linguistic changes that occurred on the Indian subcontinent, their departure can be dated to the period between the 6th and 9th centuries. However, the reasons for this departure remain veiled in obscurity. Michael Beníšek, who has long researched the origins of Romanes, pointed out during one of his lectures that there must have been a serious reason for the Roma ancestors to have left India. Since India is naturally bordered by high mountains and the sea, it cannot have been easy to leave its territory. Travel out of the country would have been significantly complicated, so the ancestors probably did not leave purely out of caprice, nor were they likely to have been seeking new markets for their products. Their departure must have been systematically organized.

Brockhaus knew it

Just as the structure and original vocabulary of Romanes became a tool for seeking the roots of the Roma in India, the original word “rom” (man, person) which the Roma in many countries use to refer to themselves is a hint that leads us to the Indian caste called the Dom. This relationship was first pointed out in the mid-19th century by the German Sanskrit scholar Hermann Brockhaus in a letter to A.F. Pott. The name “dom” refers to a group of castes living in the north of India who perform various interrelated professions. These castes traditionally live primarily through metalwork, basket-weaving, drumming, dancing, and healing. On the basis of historical linguistic analyses, the relationship between this group and the Roma is undisputed today. The initial consonant of the word “dom” transformed itself into the consonant “r” on the basis of historical linguistic changes, resulting in today’s authoethnonym (self-attribution) of “Rom.”

What will the next articles be about?

In this country, the connection between the life and customs of the Roma and those of Indian groups have primarily been studied by the late Milena Hübschmannová. She met several members of these groups during her many trips to India and brought back both eye-witness and photographic accounts of their lives. However, it is not clear how these groups live today. I have therefore decided to go to India for three months, with the support of the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University in Prague, to attempt to find these groups and describe the current situation and daily life of at least one of them. During my stay among them, I will attempt to observe whether there are similarities between their customs and Roma ones. However, prior to my departure I am asking myself whether these two ethnic groups, separated from one another by hundreds of years, will be comparable at all? I do not expect to find an open-and-shut answer to this question, but I can promise to share my experiences and observations of the life of these people with the readers of every week, as well as my impressions and doubts regarding their similarity to the Roma whom I have encountered or about whom I have read.

This article was made possible by support from the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University in Prague through funding for specific research for the year 2009.

The next article in this unique series written directly from India will be published by during the first week in August.

Gwendolyn Albert, Lukáš Houdek, Lukáš Houdek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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