Origins of the Romani People
by Ian Hancock
The Roma have been made up of many different groups of people from the
very beginning, and have absorbed outsiders throughout their history. Because
they arrived in Europe from the East, they were thought by the first Europeans
to be from Turkey or Nubia or Egypt, or any number of vaguely acknowledged
non-European places, and they were called, among other things, Egyptians
or ‘Gyptians, which is where the word "Gypsy" comes from. In some places,
this Egyptian identity was taken entirely seriously, and was no doubt borrowed
by the early Roma themselves. In the 15th century, James the Fifth of Scotland
concluded a treaty with a local Romani leader pledging the support of his
armies to help recover "Little Egypt" (an old name for Epirus, on the Greek-Albanian
coast) for them.
It was not until the second half of the 18th century that scholars in
Europe began to realize that the Romani language, in fact, came from India.
Basic words, such as some numerals and kinship terms, and names for body
parts, actions, and so on, were demonstrably Indian. So—they concluded—if
the language were originally Indian, its speakers very likely must be as
well. Once they realized this, their next questions were the obvious ones:
if Roma were indeed from India, when did they leave, and why, and are there
still Roma in that country?
At the very beginning of the 11th century, India came under attack by
the Muslim general Mahmud of Ghazni, who was trying to push Islam eastwards
into India, which was mainly Hindu territory. The Indian rulers had been
assembling troops to hold back the Muslim army for several centuries already,
deliberately drawing their warriors from various populations who were not
Aryan. The Aryans had moved into India many centuries before, and had pushed
the original population down into the south, or else had absorbed them
into the lowest strata of their own society, which began to separate into
different social levels or castes, called varnas ("colors") in Sanskrit.
The Aryans regarded Aryan life as being more precious than non-Aryan
life, and would not risk losing it in battle. So the troops that were assembled
to fight the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni were all taken from non-Aryan populations,
and made honorary members of the Kshattriya, or warrior caste, and allowed
to wear their battledress and emblems.
They were taken from many different ethnic groups who spoke many different
languages and dialects. Some were Lohars and Gujjars, some were Tandas,
some were Rajputs, non-Indian peoples who had come to live in India some
centuries before, and some may also have been Siddhis, Africans from the
East African coast who fought as mercenaries for both the Hindus and the
Muslims. This composite army moved out of India through the mountain passes
and west into Persia, battling with Muslim forces all along the eastern
limit of Islam. While this is to an extent speculative, it is based upon
sound linguistic and historical evidence, and provides the best-supported
scenario to date. Because Islam was not only making inroads into India
to the east, but was also being spread westwards into Europe, this conflict
carried the Indian troops—the early Roma—further and further in that direction,
until they eventually crossed over into southeastern Europe about the year
From the very beginning, then, the Romani population has been made up
of various different peoples who have come together for different reasons.
As the ethnically and linguistically mixed occupational population from
India moved further and further away from its land of origin (beginning
in the 11th century), so it began to acquire its own ethnic identity, and
it was at this time that the Romani language also began to take shape.
But the mixture of peoples and languages didn’t stop there, for as the
warriors moved northwestwards through Persia, they took words and grammar
from Persian, and no doubt absorbed new members too; and the same thing
happened in Armenia and in the Byzantine Empire, and has continued to happen
in Europe. In some instances, the mingling of small groups of Roma with
other peoples has resulted in such groups being absorbed into them and
losing their Romani identity; the Jenisch are perhaps such an example.
In others, it has been the outsiders who have been absorbed, and who, in
the course of time, have become one with the Romani group.
In Europe, Roma were either kept in slavery in the Balkans (in territory
that is today Romania), or else were able to move on and up into the rest
of the continent, reaching every northern and western country by about
1500. In the course of time, as a result of having interacted with various
European populations, and being fragmented into widely-separated groups,
Roma have emerged as a collection of distinct ethnic groups within the
The Honorable Ian F. Hancock, of British Romani and Hungarian Romani
descent, represents Roma on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
He is professor of Romani Studies at the University of Texas at Austin,
and has authored nearly 300 publications. In 1997, he was awarded the international
Rafto Human Rights Prize (Norway), and in 1998 was recipient of the Gamaliel
Chair in Peace and Justice (USA).