Romani Society and Culture
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Romani Society and Culture
1552 woodcut of a Romani family

The Romani people are a distinct ethnic and cultural group of peoples living all across the globe, who share a family of languages and sometimes a traditional nomadic mode of life.[1] Though their exact origins are unclear, western India is a notable point of origin. Their language stems from and is similar to modern-day Gujarati and Rajasthani, borrowing loan words from other languages as they migrated from India. In Europe, even though their culture has been victimized by other cultures, they have still found a way to maintain their heritage and society.[2][3][4][5]


The arrival of the Romas to different countries in Europe

Linguistic and phonological research has traced the Roma people's origin to places in the Indian subcontinent, specifically linking Proto-Romani groups to Central India. Many[quantify] report in extracts from popular literature that Romani emerged from the North-west regions of India, rather than from Central India.[] Features of phonological developments which emerged during the early transition stage from Old to Middle Indic prove that the history of Romani began in Central India.[6] The Romani language shares many features with the Central Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Rajasthani; it also shares connections with Northern Indo-Aryan languages like Kashmiri, and the language itself contains a cluster of Persian and Arabic words. Linguists use these phonological similarities as well as features of phonological developments which emerged during the early transition stage from Old to Middle Indic to conclude that the history of Romani began in Central India.[7] Other factors such as blood groups and unwritten customs also suggest Central Indian origins of the Roma. The Roma find issues with documenting their own exact origin due to a lack of finding specific records left by ancestors. Their history however is retold by clan family customs, such as singing and storytelling. Records cannot identify exactly why the Roma migrated from India; there are a number of possible motives, such as famine and military invasions on the part of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) and/or Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030 CE).


The Romani people are today found in many countries. Typically, Romani adopt given names that are common in the country of their residence. Seldom do modern Romani use traditional names from their own language, such as Papush, Luludi, Patrin, etc. It is the only Indo-Aryan language that has been spoken exclusively around Europe since the Middle Ages. Speakers use many terms for their language. They generally refer to their language as ?omani ?hib translated as 'the Romani language', or ?omanes, 'in a Rom way'. The English term, Romani, has been used by scholars since the 19th Century, where previously they had used the term 'Gypsy Language'.

Family and life stages

A bridesmaid at a Romani wedding in Brno, Czech Republic (2006 photograph)

Traditionally, Roma place a high value on the extended family.

Marriage and controversies

Marriage in Romani society underscores the importance of family and demonstrates ties between different groups, often transnationally. Traditionally an arranged marriage is the desired setup,[8] with the parents of each family looking for an ideal partner for their child. Parents rarely force a particular spouse on their child, although being married by your mid-twenties is generally regarded as the norm.[8] School, weddings, and other events are also popular environments for finding a prospective spouse; however, they should be supervised by an adult. With the emergence of social media such as Facebook and mobile phones, and education of women becoming more prominent, traditional and conservative views are becoming less rigid. In some Romani groups, for example the Finnish Roma, the idea of marriage is ignored altogether.[9]

Traditionally, it is a patriarchal society, and virginity is considered essential in unmarried women, because it is a visible representation of the girl's representation and the honour of her family. Men and women often marry young. The Romani practice of child marriage has generated controversy in many countries. In 2003, one of the many self-styled Romani "kings", Ilie Tortic?, prohibited marriage before the parties were of legal age in their country of residence. A Romani patriarch, Florin Cioab?, ran afoul of Romanian authorities in late 2003 when he married off his youngest daughter, Ana-Maria, at the age of twelve, well below the legal marriageable age.[10]

Bride kidnapping is thought to be a traditional Romani practice. Girls as young as twelve years old may be kidnapped for marriage to teenage boys. This practice has been reported in Ireland, England, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Slovakia.[11][12][13] Kidnapping has been seen as a way to avoid a bride price or a way for a girl to marry a boy she wants but that her parents do not want.[13] The tradition's normalisation of kidnapping puts young women at higher risk of becoming victims of human trafficking.[11][12]

The practices of bride kidnapping and child marriage are not universally accepted throughout Romani culture. Some Romani women and men seek to eliminate such customs.[14]

Romani mothers breastfed their children for health.[15]

Romani law considers oral sex, sodomy and homosexuality crimes against nature.[16]

Roma men are allowed to have more sex and express their libido more than women.[17]Pregnancy means a woman is impure in the Romani culture.[18] Having sexual intercourse before marriage is considered dirty.[19]

Purity and death

Parts of the human body are considered impure: the genital organs, because they produce impure emissions, and the lower body. Fingernails and toenails must be filed with an emery board; cutting them with a clipper is taboo.

Clothes for the lower body, as well as the clothes of menstruating women, are washed separately. Items used for eating are washed in a different place.

Childbirth is considered "impure" and must occur outside the dwelling place; the mother is considered "impure" for 40 days.

Death is seen as "impure" and affects the whole family of the dead, who may remain "impure" for a period after the death; usually private items of the dead are considered to be impure and are to be buried in his/her grave or given to non-Romani poor people. "Impure" is not literal but rather linked to cleanliness.

This practice of burial (rather than cremation) is also found amongst the nomadic people of Western India to this day. Notable deviations from this practice exist among German Roma and British Romanichal, the latter holding a tradition of cremation similar to that of some Hindu cultures. Up until the mid-20th century they invariably burned the deceased person and all their earthly belongings, including the dwelling place, all which was considered spiritually impure. During the latter half of the 20th century British Romanichal began adopting the burial customs of their Continental cousins. It is believed the soul of the deceased does not officially enter Heaven until after the burial.

The Romani hygiene is to shampoo daily since keeping the head clean is symbolic. Romani people use a separate washcloth, towel and soap for the upper and lower body.[20]

In Romani culture, Cats and dogs are considered unclean.[21]Horses are considered a sacred animal to the Roma.[22]

Romani people use herbs to heal such as burdock root extract and basil tea.[23] Romani people brought jimson weed from India to Europe.[24]

Romani people use elderberry to treat the flu.[25] Oils such as cinnamon, cloves, rosemary, lemon and lemongrass were used by Romani people to treat the Bubonic plague in Europe.[26]Horseradish juice mixed with honey is another Romani remedy.[27]

Romani people believe in ghosts and the afterlife.[28]

In Romani magic, Romani people place curses and spells and are believed to possess magic powers.[29][30]

Romani people wash their hands constantly. Romani people don't take a bathe but shower. Men's clothing can't be washed with women's clothing in Romani culture.

Gold jewelry is valued by the Romani.[31]

After Romani mothers give birth, anything they've touched must be thrown out after the baby has been baptized.[32]

Child upbringing

Romani people incorporate their values into how they raise their children. There is an element of impurity placed upon both the mother and father after the mother gives birth.[] This impurity is lessened if the child is a male and the family is considered "lucky". Traditionally, the couple will live with the father of the groom until their first child is born.[] Romani people place high value on extended family so godparents, along with this other family, are active in the child's life to ensure its well-being. The child's parents often do not have an input in what their child eats throughout the day, so the child relies on eating whatever happens to come their way.[]

Moral values


Romanipen (also romanypen, romanipe, romanype, romanimos, romaimos, romaniya) is a complicated concept of Romani philosophy encompassing totality of the Romani spirit, culture, law, being a Rom, a set of Romani strains.

An ethnic Rom is considered to be a Gadjo (non-Romani) in Romani society if he has no Romanipen. Sometimes a Gadjo, usually an adopted child, may be considered to be a Rom if he has Romanipen. As a concept, Romanipen has been the subject of interest to numerous academic observers. It has been hypothesized that it owes more to a framework of culture than simply an adherence to historically received rules.[33]

Significant changes in Romani culture following the Second World War have been attributed to the suspension of these social norms, as strict rules relating to food and contact with certain classes of people broke down. This period also coincided with a perceived loss of authority invested in traditional leaders, the primary maintainers of Romanipen.[34] Furthermore, the Roma who found themselves under Soviet control during the war, while deported to the east of the Urals and often persecuted, were generally left alone to follow their orthodox practices and thus preserved strict interpretations of Romanipen. However, the Roma who lived in other countries of eastern Europe, in the face of widespread discrimination and society's attempts at forced assimilation, often had to compromise their strict interpretation of the customs just in order to survive. As a result, the whole concept of Romanipen became interpreted differently among various Roma groups.

Being a part of Romani society

A considerable punishment for a Rom is expulsion from Romani society. An expelled person is considered to be "contaminated" and is shunned by other Romanis.

Travelling Roma left symbols or signposts for their traveling fellows, known as patrins (an old word for leaf).

Romani Code

Romani Code, or Romano Zakono, is the most important part of Romanipen. It is a set of rules for Romani life.

Though Romani ethnic groups have different sets of rules, some rules are common for all. Those rules are considered to be the Romani Code, and rules that differ are called "customs". Oral Romani cultures are most likely to adhere to the Romani code, these communities are geographically spread.[35] There are proverbs about the Romani Code and customs, such as:

  • There exist as many customs as there are Romani groups. (Kitsyk Roma, dakitsyk obychaye in Ruska Roma's dialect)
  • There are many Romani groups, but only one Law. (Romen isy but, a Zakono yekh in Ruska Roma's and Kaldarash dialects)

Rules of Romani Code describe relationships inside the Romani community and set limits for customs, behavior and other aspects of life.

The Romani Code is not written; the Romani people keep it alive in oral tradition.

The kris is a traditional institution for upholding and enforcing the Romani Code.

The code can be summarised in pillars; the main pillar representing the polar ideas of baxt (pronounced "baht") meaning honour and lad? (pronounced "Ladge") meaning shame. Linking to the article above in reference to "purity" they can also represent the idea of being "pure" or "clean" and "impure" and "unclean"[35] It is honourable, in Romani culture, to celebrate baxt by being generous and displaying your success to the public. The focus on generosity means sharing food is of great importance to some groups of Roma. Making lavish meals to share with other Romani visitors is commonplace and in some cases not having food to share is considered shameful.[35]

Faith and religion

The cult of Saint Sarah in the shrine of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Southern France is a devotion associated with Catholic Romanies.


While in India, the Romani people followed the Hindu religion. This theory is supported by the Romani word for "cross", trushul, which is the word which describes Shiva's trident (Trishul). A Hindu foundation means that the concept of kuntari, a universal balance, is central to the people's spirituality. Kuntari means that all things belong in the universe according to their natural place. However, animals such as the flightless hen and frogs, an animal with the ability to negotiate land and water, are considered to be out of balance and are, therefore, inherently unlucky. Consequently, Roma avoid hens' eggs and frogs. Roma believe in the idea of "pollution", whereby the human body is vulnerable to pollution following the breaking of certain taboos--pollution leads to a person becoming out of balance, like the frog and the hen.

If such taboos are broken, restoration of one's purity can only be attained through a trial overseen by a tribunal of Romani elders. This tribunal determines whether a person is guilty or innocent and, in the case of the former, the subject of the trial must complete a period of isolation for the purpose of eventual reinstatement (in particularly severe cases of pollution, permanent estrangement has occurred, but this is apparently rare in the modern era). Such pollution taboos do not apply until a Rom has undergone puberty.[36]

Many branches of Christianity have been adopted by Roma.[37]

Deities and saints

Blessed Ceferino Giménez Malla is considered a patron saint of the Romani people in Roman Catholicism.[38]Saint Sarah, or Kali Sara, has been revered as a patron saint in the same manner as the Blessed Ceferino Giménez Malla, but a transition occurred in the 21st century, whereby Kali Sara is understood as an Indian deity brought by the refugee ancestors of the Romani people, thereby removing any Christian association. Saint Sarah is progressively being considered as "a Romani goddess, the Protectress of the Roma" and an "indisputable link with Mother India".[39]

Ceremonies and practices

Roma often adopt the dominant religion of their host country if a ceremony associated with a formal religious institution is necessary, such as a baptism or funeral (their particular belief systems and indigenous religion and worship remain preserved regardless of such adoption processes). The Roma continue to practice "Shaktism", a practice with origins in India, whereby a female consort is required for the worship of a god. Adherence to this practice means that for the Romani who worship a Christian God, prayer is conducted through the Virgin Mary, or her mother, Saint Anne. Shaktism continues over 1,000 years after the people's separation from India.[36]

Romani elders serve as spiritual leaders; there are no priests, churches, or bibles among the Roma, the only exception being the Pentecostal Roma.[36]


For the Romani communities that have resided in the Balkans for centuries, often referred to as "Turkish Gypsies", the following histories apply for religious beliefs:

  • Bulgaria: In northwestern Bulgaria and Sofia and Kyustendil, Islam has been the dominant religion; however, in the independent Bulgarian state, a major conversion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity has occurred. In southwestern Bulgaria (Pirin Macedonia), Islam is the dominant religion, with a smaller section of the population, declaring themselves as "Turks", continuing to mix ethnicity with Islam.[40]
  • Romania: Approximately 85% of Romanian Roma are Orthodox Christians.
  • Greece: The descendants of groups, such as Sepe?ides or Sevljara, Kalpazaja, Filipid?i and others, living in Athens, Thessaloniki, central Greece and Aegean Macedonia are mostly Orthodox Christians, with Islamic beliefs held by a minority of the population. Following the Peace Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, many Muslims resettled Turkey, in the consequent population exchange between Turkey and Greece.[40]
  • Albania: Albania's Romani people are all Muslims.[40]
  • Macedonia: The majority of Romani people believe in Islam.[40]
  • Serbia: Most Romani people in Serbia are Orthodox; in the disputed territory of Kosovo the vast majority of the Romani population is Muslim.[40]
  • Bosnia, Montenegro and Herzegovina: Islam is the dominant religion.[40]
  • Croatia: Following World War II, a large number of Muslim Roma relocated to Croatia (the majority moved from Kosovo).[40]

In the Balkans, the Roma of North Macedonia and southern Serbia, including the disputed territory of Kosovo, have been particularly active in Islamic mystical brotherhoods (Sufism)--Muslim Roma immigrants to Western Europe and America have brought these traditions with them.[]

Other regions

Ukraine and Russia contain Romani Muslim populations, as the families of Balkan migrants continue to live there. The descendants' ancestors settled on the Crimean peninsula during the 17th and 18th centuries, but most descendants migrated to Ukraine, southern Russia and the Povolzhie (along the Volga River). Formally, Islam is the religion that these communities align themselves with, and the people are recognized for their staunch preservation of the Romani language and identity.[40]

Most Eastern European Roma are Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian, or Muslim.[] Those in Western Europe and the United States are mostly Roman Catholic or Protestant. In southern Spain, many Roma are Pentecostal), but this is a small minority that has emerged in contemporary times.[36] In Egypt, the Roma are split into Christian and Muslim populations.[41] For countless years, dance has been considered a religious procedure for the Egyptian Roma.[42] In Turkey, the Romani people are Muslim and the males are circumcised, while the majority of Roma in Latin America have maintained their European religions, with most following Orthodox Christianity.[43]

Some Romani people practice witchcraft.[44] These Romani people may believe in amulets, talismans, palmistry, crystal balls and astrology. Water is believed to have magic powers to these Romani.[45] Alako is a spirit believed to be a defender of Romani people and taker of their souls after death in some of these traditions. The cult of Bibi mentions a goddess who strangles non-Romani and infects non-Romani with cholera, tuberculosis and typhoid fever. Birds have meaning in some Romani mythology.[46] Some Romani people believe in fairies.[47] Some Romani people believe in protective spirits and guardian angels.[48]


Since World War II, a growing number of Roma have embraced Evangelical movements. For the first time, Roma became ministers and created their own, autonomous churches and missionary organizations. In some countries, the majority of Roma belong to Romani churches. This unexpected change has greatly contributed to a better image of Roma in society. The work they perform is seen as more legitimate, and they have begun to obtain legal permits for commercial activities.[43]

Evangelical Romani churches exist in every country where Roma are settled. The movement is particularly strong in France and Spain; there are more than 1,000 Romani churches (known as "Filadelfia" or simply el culto) in Spain, with almost 100 in Madrid alone. In Germany, the most numerous group is that of Polish Roma, with their main church in Mannheim. Other important and numerous Romani assemblies are in Los Angeles, Houston, Buenos Aires, and Mexico.

Contemporary art and culture

Persian poet Firdusi from Iran was the first to reference Romani people and their migrations.[49]

In Roman mythology, Romani people are believed to be the offspring of deities Mercury and Vulcan.[50]


Romani people influenced flamenco with their dances from their homeland India and used the flamenco dance to then forget about their persecutions in Spain.[24] Romani people also influenced Mexican dances in Mexico.[51] In Spain, there is Romani flamenco concerts and shows.


Romani musicians entertaining

The l?utari who perform at traditional Romanian weddings are virtually all Roma, although their music draws from a vast variety of ethnic traditions--for example Romanian, Turkish, Jewish, and Slavic--as well as Romani traditions. Probably the most internationally prominent contemporary performer in the l?utari tradition is Taraful Haiducilor. Zdob ?i Zdub, one of the most prominent rock bands in Moldova, although not Roma themselves, draw heavily on Romani music, as do Spitalul de Urgen in Romania.

Flamenco music and dance came from the Roma in Spain; the distinctive sound of Romani music has also strongly influenced bolero, jazz, and Cante Jondo in Europe. European-style Gypsy jazz is still widely practised among the original creators (the Romani People); one who acknowledged this artistic debt was Django Reinhardt.

Classical music

Romani music is very important in Eastern European cultures such as Hungary, Russia, and Romania. Performance practices by Romani musicians have influenced European classical composers such as Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms. Several renowned classical musicians are Romani.


The Romani language is spoken by millions of Romani people throughout the world. It is of the Indo-Aryan branch. Many Romani people are bilingual and can speak two or more languages.


Each June, Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month is celebrated in London.[52]International Romani Day is a holiday celebrated in Europe especially in Budapest, Bulgaria, Romania and Eastern Europe on April 8. Romani people wave the Romani flag on International Romani Day every April 8.


In Hungary, there is a Romani influence on Hungarian food. Many Hungarian dishes have a Romani variation such as cigánypecsenye, a dish served with fries, bacon and salad. and goulash. Rigo Jancsi, a Hungarian chocolate dessert is named after a Hungarian Roma. Romani people cook family recipes such as bodag (cigánykenyér) in Hungary. There is a Romani restaurant called Romani Kafenava in Maribor, Slovenia. In Budapest, there is Romani restaurant called Romani Platni. In Romania, Romani people eat m?m?lig?. There's a Romani cookbook called the Gypsy cookbook. Romani people drink a lot of tea and there is a tea brand based off Romani people called Zhena's Gypsy Tea. Gypsy style tea is black tea served with fruit such as strawberries, lemons and apples. Stuffed cabbage, soup, vegetables and stuffed peppers are a part of the Romani diet.

Lettuce, garlic, vinegar and onion are considered lucky foods in the Romani culture.[53]Coffee and cakes are usually served to guests.[54]

Roma believe that some foods are auspicious, or lucky (baxtalo), particularly those with pungent tastes like garlic, lemon, tomato, peppers, and fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles and sour cream. One of the most sacred foods to Romani people is bread.[55] Romani people usually avoid public restaurants.

In Spanish cuisine, Romani people cook olla gitana which is made of chickpeas, pumpkins, almonds, and pears and brazo gitano, a Spanish dessert.[56]

Ian Hancock called Romani food the soul food of Europe.[57]

Theatre, circus and cinema

There exist four well-known Romani theatres in the world, Romen Theatre, Romance Theatre, Romanothan and Phralipe, and also many small theatres.


A stereotype that Romani people have psychic powers (e.g. fortune-teller) is still sometimes present, and some romantics attribute the invention of the Tarot cards to them.

Relations with other people

An 1852 Wallachian poster advertising an auction of Romani slaves.

Because of their nomadic lifestyle and differences in language and culture, Roma and their more settled neighbours have held each other in distrust. The popular image of Roma as tramps and thieves unfit for work contributed to their widespread persecution. This belief is often cited as the etymological source of the term gyp, meaning to "cheat", as in "I got gypped by a con man."

There are still tensions between Roma and the majority population around them. Common complaints are that Roma steal and live off social welfare and residents often reject Romani encampments. This has led to Roma being described as "perhaps the most hated minority in Europe."[58] In the UK, travellers (referring to both Irish Travellers and Roma) became a 2005 general election issue, with Michael Howard, the then-leader of the Conservative Party promising to review the Human Rights Act 1998.[59] This law, which absorbs the European Convention on Human Rights into UK primary legislation, is seen by some to permit the granting of retrospective planning permission for Romani communities. Severe population pressures and the paucity of greenfield sites have led to travellers purchasing land and setting up residential settlements almost overnight, thus subverting the planning restrictions imposed on other members of the community. Travellers argued in response that thousands of retrospective planning permissions are granted in Britain in cases involving non-Romani applicants each year and that statistics showed that 90% of planning applications by Roma and travellers were initially refused by local councils, compared with a national average of 20% for other applicants, potentially disproving claims of preferential treatment favouring Roma. They also argued that the root of the problem was that many traditional stopping-places had been barricaded off and that legislation passed by the previous Conservative government had effectively criminalised their communities by removing local authorities' responsibility to provide sites, thus leaving the travellers with no option but to purchase unregistered new sites themselves.[60]

Law enforcement agencies in the United States hold regular conferences on the Roma and similar nomadic groups.[61]

In Denmark, there was much controversy when the city of Helsingør decided to put all Romani students in special classes in its public schools. The classes were later abandoned after it was determined that they were discriminatory and the Romani students were put back in regular classes.[62]

Romani people discourage their children from attending public education due to the fear of Romani children forming friendships with non-Romani.[63]

Roma in Eastern Europe

Romani boy in bear costume, part of entertainer team for working Christmas crowds. Budapest, Hungary.

In Eastern Europe, Roma often live in depressed squatter communities with very high unemployment, while only some are fully integrated in the society. However, in some cases--notably the Kalderash clan in Romania, who work as traditional coppersmiths--they have prospered. Although some Roma still embrace a nomadic lifestyle, most migration is actually forced, as most communities do not accept Romani settlements. However, each year in May approximately 10,000 to 15,000 Romani people go on a pilgrimage to Les-Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer in Southern France. Roma arrive in caravans for celebrations, weddings and religious ceremonies.

Many countries that were formerly part of the Eastern bloc and former Yugoslavia have substantial populations of Roma. The level of integration of Roma into society remains limited. In these countries, they usually remain on the margins of society, living in isolated, ghetto-like settlements (see Chánov). Only a small fraction of Romani children graduate from secondary schools, though numerous official efforts have been made, past and present, to compel their attendance. Roma frequently feel rejected by the state and the main population, creating another obstacle to their integration.

In the Czech Republic, 75% of Romani children are educated in schools for people with learning difficulties and 70% are unemployed, compared with a national rate of 9%. In Hungary, 44% of Romani children are in special schools, while 74% of men and 83% of women are unemployed. In Slovakia, Romani children are 28 times more likely to be sent to a special school than non-Roma, whilst Romani unemployment stands at 80%.[64]

In 2004, Lívia Járóka and Viktória Mohácsi of Hungary became the two current Romani Members of the European Parliament. The first Romani MEP was Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia of Spain.

Seven former Communist Central European and Southeastern European states launched the Decade of Roma Inclusion initiative in 2005 to improve the socioeconomic conditions and status of the Romani minority.

See also


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