Page last updated at 00:10 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 01:10 UK

On the road: Centuries of Roma history

Roma women in Romania
There are striking similarities between the Roma and some groups from Northern India

Beginning a series on the modern-day plight of Roma Gypsies in Europe, by BBC Russian for the World Service, Delia Radu traces the ethnic group's nomadic history back to northern India.

"Who are these people?" asks the man behind the counter in the photo store in Southall, an area also known as London's Little India.

He is handing over my order: a hefty pile of colour photographs, of which a picture of two Roma women and their children (above) is the first.

"They look just like the Banjara in Rajasthan - that's where I come from," he says.

He points to a beautiful print on the wall, showing a glamorous group of female Banjara dancers.

The similarity is striking.

Historians agree that the Roma's origins lie in north-west India and that their journey towards Europe started between the 3rd and 7th Centuries AD - a massive migration prompted by timeless reasons: conflicts, instability and the seeking of a better life in big cities such as Tehran, Baghdad and, later on, Constantinople.

Some of these Indian immigrant workers were farmers, herdsmen, traders, mercenaries or book-keepers. Others were entertainers and musicians.

They settled in the Middle East, calling themselves Dom, a word meaning "man".

Post-war European governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain denied the Roma Holocaust survivors any recognition or aid

To this day they retain their name and speak a language related to Sanskrit.

Large numbers moved into Europe, where the D, which was anyway pronounced with the tongue curled up, became an R, giving the word Rom. Today's European Roma (the plural of Rom) are their descendants.


Maybe because they were carrying customs and memories connected to their Hindu gods, the Roma were regarded as heathens in Byzantium and were assimilated into a heretic sect: "the Untouchables" or Atsingani. This designation is the root of the words used for "Gypsy" in most European languages, such as the French "Tzigane" and the German "Zigeuner".

By the 14th Century, journeying further into Europe, perhaps fleeing the Turks or perhaps the plague, the Atsingani were to be found in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece.

Roma workman
Roma have worked as coppersmiths possibly since the "Persian period"

They worked on the land or as craftsmen but in two Romanian principalities, Wallachia and Moldova, they were pushed into slavery and feature prominently in property deeds.

About a century later the Roma fled towards Ukraine and Russia.

Some presented themselves as pilgrims or penitents, and like any such group wandering throughout Europe during that era they were given aid or shelter.

This welcoming attitude changed dramatically around the year 1500.

Historians believe this might have happened because the numbers of the immigrants grew bigger, but they also were seen as spies for the Turks, and consequently hunted and killed by decree.

This led to what some historians dub "the first Roma genocide" - a period of fierce repression.

There were hangings and expulsions in England; branding and the shaving of heads in France; severing of the left ear of Roma women in Moravia, and of the right one in Bohemia.

Following these expulsions and killings, large groups of Roma travelled back East, towards Poland, which was more tolerant.

Russia was also a place where the Roma were treated less heavy-handedly, notably being allowed to retain nomadic or semi-nomadic ways of living, as long as they paid the annual taxes - the "obrok".

Children removed

In contrast, the policy of the West, especially during the Age of Enlightenment was to "civilise" the Roma through brutal forced assimilation.

The repression included: 24 strokes of the cane for the use of the "Gypsy language"; forbidding Roma to marry among themselves; restricting the numbers of Roma musicians; taking away children as young as four years old from their parents and distributing them among the neighbouring towns, "at least every two years".

Holocaust survivor
Roma families were among the first victims of the Holocaust

In some cases these policies did force Roma to become assimilated. But many took to the road again.

The persecutions culminated in the Holocaust, or Porajmos - "the Devouring" - as it is called in Romany.

The Roma found themselves among the first victims of Nazi policies.

They were sent to die in the gas vans of Chelmno, and were subjected to gruesome experiments in the extermination camps.

Up to 500,000 Roma are believed to have been killed under fascist rule.


Yet post-war European governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain denied the Roma Holocaust survivors any recognition or aid.

In the communist bloc some managed to reach the modest living standards of the era, most often at the price of giving up their language and identity, while the majority of Roma continued to lead poverty stricken lives on the margins of society.

In many cases there were special policies towards Roma, including coerced sterilisation (Czechoslovakia) or forcing them to change their names and hiding their dwellings behind concrete walls (Bulgaria).

The demise of the communist regimes in 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe was followed by an upsurge of anti-Roma violence in almost every country.

Today, six million out of the estimated 10 million European Roma live in Central and Eastern Europe.

Up to two million are to be found in Romania, whose established Roma slave markets horrified Western travellers until as late as the 19th Century.

Decades of communism and the recent admission of Eastern countries into the EU seem to have made little difference to their history of exclusion and poverty.

Most Roma families live in small shacks with no electricity or running water, and international institutions calculate that Roma poverty rates are up to 10 times higher than those of the majority population where they live, while their lifespan is 10 or 15 years lower.

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