ALTERNATE NAMES: Gypsies; Vlach Roma; Rom; Romanichals; Cales; Kaale; Kawle; Sinti/Manouches

LOCATION: Dispersed population in Europe; parts of Asia, North, Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, North and South Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

POPULATION: 6–10 million

LANGUAGE: Romani dialects; also the language of the host country

RELIGION: Hinduism with Christianity or Islam (host country religion)


The Roma people originated in India. By the eleventh century AD they were located in the area called Gurjara, in what was then the Rajput Confederacy. A group called Dom belonged to the aboriginal peoples of India but had adopted the Hindu religion and an Indo-Aryan language derived from Sanskrit. Some groups of Dom were nomadic entertainers and artisans.

In the tenth century, a Muslim kingdom arose in what is now Afghanistan, with its capital at Ghasni. In 1017, its ruler, Mahmud Ghazni, launched a series of massive raids into India. He and successive rulers entered India, plundering and massacring the people, carrying off thousands of slaves, and laying waste to the countryside. The Rajputs fought back, during which groups of people were displaced or forced to move out of desolated areas. At some point during the eleventh century, the ancestors of the Roma made their way into the Upper Indus Valley from Gurjara and spent some time in this region.

The ancestors of the Roma then left India and entered northwestern China. From there they followed the ancient trading routes which led them to Persia, then through southern Georgia, Armenia, and finally to the Byzantine Empire. From the Byzantine capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), they reached Romania by at least the fourteenth century. Some groups remained in Romania but many moved on, traveling both west and east. By the end of the fifteenth century, Roma could be found as far west as the British Isles and Spain and as far east as Poland and Lithuania.

At some point during their migration from India, scholars believe their original name, Dom (or Domba in the plural), changed to Rom (singular) and Roma (plural).


Since the fifteenth century, Roma have been a dispersed ethnic population in Europe. Roma in the Romanian-speaking principalities, later including Transylvania, were once enslaved and are known as Vlach Roma (the "ch" in Vlach is pronounced as k or as ch in Scottish loch ). After their emancipation in 1864, many made their way into Central and Western Europe and the Balkans, eventually reaching North, Central, and South America by the 1890s. Today the Vlach Roma are the most numerous and most widespread group of Roma.

In Western Europe, because of persecution in most countries, Roma were forced to become nomadic (moving from place to place). This characteristic gave rise to the tradition in popular literature of the roving "Gypsy." In the past, colonial powers deported or transported Roma to their colonies in Africa, the West Indies, the Americas, and Australia.

Roma from many groups have more recently migrated from Europe to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and elsewhere. They take on the nationality of their host countries and consider themselves American Roma, Canadian Roma, Australian Roma, South African Roma, and so forth.


The speakers normally refer to their language as Romani , Romani chib , or Romanes . There are many dialects, some of which go by different names, such as Romnimus (in Wales), Kaale (in Finland), or Calo (in Spain). Romani has its own unique grammar, as opposed to adopting the grammar of the country in which its speakers live. As an example, note the following comparative sentences:

I am going into the village to buy a horse
from the non-Roma man.

Inflected Romani
Jav ando gav te kinav grast katar o gadjo.
(These words are of Sanskrit/Indian origin)

English Romani
I'm jall in' into the gav to kin a grai from
the gorjo.

Spanish Romani
Voy en el gao para quinelar un gras del

Romani uses many idiomatic expressions, proverbs, and sayings, often with metaphorical qualities. This situation makes it difficult to write dictionaries of Romani with word-for-word equivalents. For example, "He is retiring" in English would be expressed in Romani as Beshel lesko kam (His sun is setting). "What are you thinking?" is expressed as So si tut ando shoro, which means "What do you have in your head?"

Roma usually take Christian names like those of the people around them, such as Milano, Yanko, or Zlatcho for men, and Mara, Tinka, or Pavlena for women. The Vlach Roma have no surnames. Other groups adopt last names similar to those of the people among whom they live. The Vlach Roma also do this for identity papers, driver's licenses, and other documents, but do not use these names among themselves.


Roma folktales and legends are known as paramichia . A legendary hero among the Vlach Roma is Mundro Salamon or Wise Solomon. Other Roma groups call this hero O Godjiaver Yanko. Mundro Salamon is a wise man who uses his mental powers and cunning to escape from those who would harm him or to save others from danger. A typical Mundro Salamon story runs as follows:

One day Mundro Salamon learned that the Martya, or Angel of Death, was about to come and claim the soul of the village miller who was his friend. He went to the Martya and asked her to spare the miller's life because he had small children to support, and the people of the village needed him to grind their corn. She refused, so Mundro Salamon tricked her. "How could you take his soul," he asked her, "if he locked himself in a room?" "I would simply dissolve into smoke and slip under the door," she told him. "Rubbish," Salamon replied. "You mean you could slip inside this peashooter I am whittling for the miller's son?" To prove it, the Martya dissolved into smoke and entered the peashooter. Salamon then plugged both ends of the peashooter, trapping the Martya inside. He locked the peashooter inside a metal box, rowed out to the sea in a boat, and dumped the box over the side. For seven years nobody died, until one day two fishermen casting their nets caught the metal box and retrieved it. They smashed it open, found the peashooter, and unplugged it, allowing the Martya to escape.

Now she began to search for Salamon to get her revenge. But Salamon had anticipated she might escape and had taken precautions. He had shod his horse backwards so that the prints of the horseshoes led the Martya to look for seven years in the wrong direction. She then realized her blunder and spent another seven years looking in the right direction. She finally found Salamon, now an elderly man. "Now I'm going to make you suffer," she told him. "For seven years I will freeze you in ice. Then, for another seven years I will roast you in fire. Then, for seven years I will turn you into rotten pulpwood and you will be nibbled on by maggots. Only after this will I put you out of your misery and take your soul." "Rubbish," Salamon said mockingly. "How can you take my soul? You don't have the power. You're bluffing me." "I'll show you," the Martya screamed, and blew three times on his face. Salamon died smiling. He had outwitted the Martya even in death!


Roma religious beliefs are rooted in Hinduism. Roma believe in a universal balance, called kuntari . Everything must have its natural place: birds fly and fish swim. Thus hens, which do not fly, are considered to be out of balance (and therefore bad luck), as are frogs, which can go into the water and also walk on land. For this reason, Roma traditionally do not eat hens' eggs and avoid frogs. The Roma also believe it is possible to become polluted in a variety of ways, including breaking taboos involving the upper and lower halves of the body. A Roma who becomes polluted is considered out of balance and must be restored to purity through a trial before the Roma tribunal of elders. If declared guilty, he or she is usually given a period of isolation away from other Roma and then reinstated. In severe cases of pollution, a Roma can be outlawed from the group forever, but this is rare today. Children are exempt from these rules and from pollution taboos until they reach puberty.

The surrounding host-culture religions are used for ceremonies like baptisms or funerals for which the Roma need a formal religious institution. Except for the elders who are the spiritual leaders, there are no Roma priests, churches, or bibles except among the Pentecostal Roma, who are a small and new minority. Despite a 1,000-year separation from India, Roma still practice Shaktism, the worship of a god through a female consort. Thus, while Roma worship the Christian God, they pray to Him through the Virgin Mary or Saint Ann.


Roma celebrate the holidays of the various countries in which they live. The Vlach Roma and many other groups celebrate Christmas (December 25) and Easter (March or April). In Romania, there are holidays commemorating the emancipation of Roma slaves. In Muslim countries, Roma often observe Muslim religious holidays.

Christmas and Easter, among the Vlach Rom, are always celebrated by feasts. Sometimes family heads will get together and pool their resources to hold one large feast for the entire community. There will be music, dancing, singing and socializing. At Easter, each family will dye Easter eggs a special color and place them in a large bowl. These are given, one each, to every guest. There is also a ceremony called chognimos, or egg-whipping, where the visitor or guest will bring an egg and hold it in the palm of his hand. The host will do the same, and they will slap their palms together, usually cracking or crushing both eggs. This is believed to bring baxt, or good karma.


When a baby is born, the mother and her baby are considered polluted and are separated from the rest of the household and from other Roma for a predetermined period, which varies among clans and groups. Once this period is over, godparents are selected from the Roma community. They take the baby to a church for the actual baptism ceremony. They also give the baby a small gold cross. When the godparents return with the baptized baby there is a feast called bolimos.

At puberty, shave (boys) and sheya (girls) are initiated into the world of adults. Boys are taught to drive and to work with their adult male family members at the family trade. Girls are instructed by female adults in women's work and strictly chaperoned when they go to movies or shopping. Roma girls do not go on dates and must be chaperoned outside the home. Boys have more freedom and are allowed to go to dances and socialize with non-Roma teenagers. Teenagers enter adulthood when they marry, which is generally at fifteen or sixteen for girls and from sixteen to eighteen for boys. The young married person becomes a Rom (male adult Roma) or a Romni (female adult Roma). The bride, or bori, must serve a period of apprenticeship in the home of her in-laws until the mother-in-law is satisfied that she is following the laws of respect and pollution to the family's satisfaction.

When adults become middle-aged, they graduate to the ranks of the elders: men become spiritual leaders of the community and sit as judges on the tribunal of elders. It is believed that after women go through menopause, they can no longer pollute men. They too become spiritual elders who advise the younger women.

After a death, there is a one-year mourning period called pomana, with feasts for the dead held at three-month intervals. The Roma believe that their deceased join their ancestors and watch over the actions of the living. The spirits of the ancestors are called as witnesses at solemn events like the swearing of oaths at the tribunal of elders, where they are assumed to be spiritually present and able to send a prekaza (jinx) to any Roma who is lying. Roma do not discuss their dead.


When a guest arrives, the Roma host will say "Welcome! God has sent you!" The guest or guests must also be served food and drink. The usual greeting is a handshake, although Roma men often embrace relatives and close friends and kiss them on the cheek. Women also embrace and kiss when they meet. When family or friends visit, the host will often provide entertainment and ask his sons to play music and his eldest daughter to dance. Women must appear modestly dressed before guests and at group gatherings.

Roma body language varies in different countries, but most Roma are very expressive and impulsive. They make use of gestures, use their hands when talking, wink, snap their fingers, and indulge in mimicry. When talking about somebody else, they will imitate his or her voice or mannerisms.

Whereas most modern cultures have two concepts of cleanliness (clean and dirty), the Roma have three: wuzho, or clean; melalo, dirty with honest dirt; and marime, which means polluted or defiled among the Vlach Roma (other groups use different words). While non-Roma are concerned with visible dirt, Roma are concerned with beliefs about ritual pollution.

Another central belief regarding cleanliness involves the upper and lower halves of the body. Roma do not take baths but shower standing up, since the lower part of the body is considered an agent of pollution. The body above the waist is considered clean, and the head is the cleanest and purest area of all. Clothing worn above the waist must be washed separately from clothing worn below the waist (also, men's clothing cannot be washed with women's clothing). Roma wash their hands constantly—after touching their shoes or door-knobs, or doing anything considered necessary but potentially defiling.

If a Roma person is declared to be polluted, he or she may not socialize with other Roma nor have any dealings with them, since Roma believe that the pollution can spread from one person to another and contaminate the entire community.


The living conditions of Roma vary enormously, from the wealthier, technologically advanced countries like the United States and Canada to impoverished, third-world countries. In any society, Roma usually live at a somewhat lower standard than the non-Roma.

Roma adapt well to societies where there is a surplus of consumer goods that they can buy and sell, or where there is scrap they can collect to recycle. While many Roma are nomadic, especially in Europe, others are sedentary. They might settle in trailer camps, living in horse-drawn wagons or travel trailers, or in modern apartments. Others live in houses in Eastern European villages. Conditions are especially bad in Slovakia, where many Roma live in dilapidated shacks. Others live in shantytowns, or bidonvilles, in France and Spain, which are often bulldozed into oblivion by the town councils while the occupants are at a local feast. Many Roma in Western Europe are squatters, occupying condemned buildings while trying to find more suitable accommodations. In the United States, many Roma own their own homes or rent decent living accommodations. In Central and South America, many are still nomadic and live in tents. In Portugal, Roma travel with horses and wagons and sleep in tents.

Nomadic Roma are often healthier than those who lead sedentary lives. The Roma diet was evolved for a nomadic and active people, and when they settle down and still eat the same types of foods, they often become overweight and suffer from health problems. Women generally live longer than men, who often die in middle age from heart attacks. Roma life can be stressful because of constant problems arising from their lifestyle, which is often misunderstood by the law-enforcement agencies who move them on when they are traveling or, when they are sedentary, harass them over by-laws, work permits, and licenses. In Eastern Europe, there is a high mortality rate among Roma children and infants. Perhaps 80 percent of the orphans in Romania are Roma children suffering from diseases like AIDS (transmitted by infected medical syringes).

Except in rural areas of the less developed countries, most Roma use cars, trucks, and travel trailers. In countries like the United States, they fly to visit relatives or to attend weddings. In Europe, they travel by train, bus, or in their own cars and trailers. The Roma in the United States and other developed nations see the car as a status symbol and try to own an impressive vehicle. They often buy expensive jewelry, watches, home furnishings, and appliances as well as luxurious carpets. In Europe, Roma caravans are often full of expensive china dishes.


Roma families are usually large and extended. The nuclear family is rare and unmarried adults are looked upon with suspicion. To be unmarried means to be out of balance, according to the Roma beliefs. Among the Roma, women are equal to men, but each sex has its own traditional role. The men go out to work and earn the larger sums of money, which tend to come in sporadically, while the women earn the day-today expenses needed to run the household. The Roma woman is the absolute ruler of the home. The eldest daughter, or she bari , also has a special role in the family. She replaces the mother in the role of housekeeper when the mother is sick or absent, and is responsible for the meals, house-cleaning, and the care of her younger siblings. Men do a limited amount of cooking and housework.

Pets are rare among the Roma. Watch-dogs may be kept outside. Cats, which can jump and climb, are taboo.


There is no traditional male Roma costume. Women among the Roma wear a traditional costume composed of a full, ankle-length skirt tied on the left side at the waist, a loose, low-cut blouse, a bolero vest, and an apron. In the United States, the bandana of the married woman is often replaced by a thin strip of ribbon. In Europe, the full traditional female costume is still in common use among the Vlach Roma and other more traditional groups. Roma men like to dress well and often adopt a particular style. Roma men wear expensive suits but seldom wear ties, except for Western-style bolos (string ties). In Europe, men in some groups wear a diklo, a type of neckerchief, often with a fancy ring which they use to tighten it. Most Roma men like fancy belt buckles and lots of jewelry. Women also wear jewelry.

For everyday wear, Roma dress casually. Men wear business suits without ties. Hats are popular among older Roma men, who wear them indoors as well as outdoors. Teenagers and younger men adopt the local styles, such as baseball caps, sneakers, and windbreakers. Girls may wear jeans, but if guests arrive, they change into a dress.

12 • FOOD

Roma food differs from one country to another. Roma enjoy stuffed cabbage rolls and stews. In the past, nomadic Roma always kept a stewpot simmering in the camp. Hedgehogs (porcupines) are a delicacy among some nomadic Roma.

The two basic dietary staples of the Roma are meat and unleavened bread, called pogacha , augmented by salads and fruit. Roma drink a lot of tea, prepared with slices of fruit and sugar. Lambs are roasted outdoors on revolving spits and sprinkled with beer.

There are many taboos surrounding food. Certain foods like peanuts can only be eaten at a pomana or funeral feast. Bread cannot be burned, and any food that falls on the floor is polluted and must be destroyed. Horsemeat is forbidden to all Roma. Food served at a funeral feast must be eaten before sundown or given away to strangers.


Until this century, a formal education was virtually unheard of in the Roma community. Even today, the illiteracy rate is high. In Eastern Europe, some Roma have become doctors, journalists, teachers, nurses, and technicians. Some Roma, however, see formal education as assimilating their children—schools are viewed as dangerous places and agents of pollution.

Once children of both sexes reach puberty, they are usually taken out of school, and the boys begin to work with their male elders. In Europe, most schools aim at assimilating Roma children into the dominant culture of their country.


The Roma have a strong cultural heritage, which is expressed mainly in music and dance. The roots of Roma music go back to India and show traces of all the musical cultures to which the Roma have been exposed in their migrations. Roma music from certain countries has become world renowned. Foremost is the Flamenco of the Spanish Roma, who are called Cales. Flamenco displays Roma, Moorish, and Spanish influences.

Hungarian Roma music, played on violins and cimbaloms, can be heard in many Hungarian restaurants, even in the United States and Canada. Russian Roma music has also become famous. Under the czars, Roma choirs performed for the royal family and the nobility, while other musicians played for army officers and businessmen at restaurants and inns.


Since their arrival in Europe, Roma have been self-employed artisans, entertainers, and middle men dealing in various commodities. Roma traditionally became horse trainers, animal dealers, and ratcatchers. The Roma economy has been built around self employment and the perpetuation of old skills, plus the acquisition of new skills to adapt to new technological developments.


Sports in general do not appeal to the Roma, although certain regional games can be found, such as Roma wrestling in Romania. Many Roma enjoy horse racing and will patronize local racetracks. Roma men and teenagers also like to play billiards, often for money with non-Roma. It is a status symbol among American Roma teenagers to be a good billiard player. In Europe, Roma participate in mainstream sports, and there are a few Roma soccer teams.


Roma, especially children and teenagers, enjoy going to the movies. The television, if there is one, is usually left on so that the children may watch it. Since Roma often have little to do with non-Roma, except for business, many form their ideas of non-Roma culture from what they see on television. Teenagers may adopt the slang they hear from teenagers on television or copy their way of dressing, but for the most part, the surrounding mainstream culture contravenes Roma taboos.


While some individuals have excelled as painters or sculptors, and in other art forms, the majority of Roma practice few handicrafts. Some Roma men make belts or leather clothing, and women may do elaborate embroidery work, while both sexes create artifacts, such as baskets, for sale.

The carving and fretwork (cut-out woodwork) designs seen on the Roma wagons in England became world famous and were later copied by European Roma in some countries. Today, some of the ornately carved versions are made for European collectors by Roma craftsmen.


In Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Hungary, Roma have become the target of prejudice and discrimination. There have been ethnically motivated killings of Roma in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, while in Romania, mobs have burned Roma homes and driven the Roma from villages. In some countries, the Roma are stereotyped as romantic misfits or backward savages who should be civilized and assimilated into the general population.


Gropper, R. C. Gypsies in the City: Cultural Patterns and Survival. Princeton, N.J.: The Darwin Press, 1975.

Hancock, I. A Grammar of Vlax Romani . London & Austin: Romanestan Publications, 1993.

McDowell, Bart. Gypsies: Wanderers Of The World . Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 1970.

Tong, D. Gypsy Folktales . New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

Yoors, J. The Gypsies. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967.


Embassy of Romania, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Romania. [Online] Available , 1998.

Also read article about Roma from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

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Mar 2, 2011 @ 2:14 pm
awesome.. this helped me pass my culturl anthropology class!
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Mar 9, 2011 @ 8:08 am
I was wondering if I could use the Wise Solomon story on my school's myth wiki. I would, of course, cite my sources and make sure this site gets credit, but I don't want to run into any copyright laws.
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Aug 20, 2011 @ 11:23 pm
this is great... thankyou for who ever wrote this!!! its halping alot with history!!! :D
D. Lynn C.
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Feb 9, 2012 @ 12:00 am
This is an enlightening entry on the Romany people — thank you! More understanding of the Roma is needed to stem the horrible prejudice against this remarkable culture of survivors; we should be fascinated by their amazing journeys and stories.
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Mar 14, 2013 @ 4:04 am
I am looking for a clan in South Africa to contact
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Mar 15, 2013 @ 2:14 pm
This was a great article and I was just wondering if you knew where I could find more information about their dances and the dance history some more with some specific details. Thank you so much
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Mar 24, 2013 @ 6:18 pm
Gitanos speak a dialect of Castilian, and Vlach gypsies speak old Romanian, and both groups have identify have local identities, it doesn't make sense to say all Romani have Indian origin when they didn't begin their historical memory begins in Byzantine Rome, and they didn't form as "Romani" until they arrived in Europe and still many groups still didn't exist to later. It is very difficult to generalize about them because they don't all speak Romani, and they don't all refer to themselves as Roma.
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Sep 11, 2014 @ 7:07 am
Thanks this helped alot with my sociology work cheers :D xx

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