Romani society and culture

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1552 woodcut of A Gipsy Family

The Romani people have similar value systems and worldviews.


Linguistic and phonological research has traced the Roma people’s first place of origin to Indian subcontinents, specifically Proto-Romani groups from Central India. Many report in extracts from popular literature that Romani emerged from North west regions of India, rather than 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.[1] Romani language shares many features with Central Indo Aryan languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Rajasthani languages, 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.[2] Other factors such as blood groups and unwritten customs also identify with Central Indian origins of the Roma. The Roma find issues with recalling their own exact origin due to a lack of 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, famine and possible army invasions assembled by Alexander the Great and/or Mahmud of Ghazni.


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. Being 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 řomani čhib translated as ‘the Romani language’, or řomanes, ‘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)

The traditional Romanies 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 set up,[3] 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.[3] School, other marriages, and events are also a popular environment 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 in women becoming more prominent, traditional and conservative views are becoming less rigid. In some Roma groups, for example the Finnish Roma, the idea of marriage is ignored altogether.[4]

Traditionally, it is a patriarchal society and virginity is considered essential in unmarried women, this is 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 Tortică, prohibited marriage before the parties were of legal age in their country of residence. A Romani patriarch, Florin Cioabă, 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.[5]

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.[6][7][8] 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.[8] The tradition's normalisation of kidnapping puts young women at higher risk of becoming victims of human trafficking.[6][7]

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.[9]

Romani customs often establish that the groom’s family must pay a bride price to the bride's parents. Romani social behaviour is strictly regulated by purity laws ("marime" or "marhime") respected by most Romanis and among Sinti groups by the elder generations. This regulation affects many aspects of life and is applied to actions, people, and things.

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.

Many of these practices are also present in Hindu cultures. However, unlike the Hindu practice of burning the dead, Romani culture requires that the dead must be buried. Notable deviations from this practice exist among German Romanies 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.

Moral values

Being a part of Romani society

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

Travelling Romanis left symbols or signposts for their travelling 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". The oral Romani cultures are most likely to adhere to the Romani code, these communities are geographically spread.[10] There are proverbs about Romani Code and customs, such as:

  • There exist as many customs as many 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 ladž 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" [10] 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 Romani people. Making lavish meals to share with other Rom visitors is commonplace and in some cases not having food to share is considered shameful.[10]

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, Romani avoid hens' eggs and frogs. The Romani believe in the notion 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 Romani has undergone puberty.[11]

Christianity and Islam have been adopted by Romanis.[12]

Deities and saints

Blessed Ceferino Giménez Malla is considered a patron saint of the Romani people in Roman Catholicism.[13] Saint Sarah, or Kali Sara, has been worshiped 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".[14]

Ceremonies and practices

Romanis 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 Romani 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.[11]

Besides the Romani elders, who serve as spiritual leaders, priests, churches, or bibles do not exist among the Romanis. The only exception is the Pentecostal Roma.[11]


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.[15]
  • Romania: Approximately 85% of Romanian Romani are Orthodox Christians.
  • Greece: The descendants of groups, such as Sepečides or Sevljara, Kalpazaja, Filipidži 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.[15]
  • Albania: Albania's Romani people are all Muslims.[15]
  • Macedonia: The majority of Romani people believe in Islam.[15]
  • Serbia: Most Romani people in Serbia are Orthodox
  • Kosovo: The vast majority of the Romani population in what has become Kosovo is Muslim.[15]
  • Bosnia, Montenegro and Herzegovina: Islam is the dominant religion.[15]
  • Croatia: Following the World War II, a large number of Muslim Romani relocated to Croatia (the majority moved from Kosovo).[15]

In the Balkans, the Romanies of Macedonia and Kosovo have been particularly active in Islamic mystical brotherhoods (Sufism)—Muslim Roma immigrants to Western Europe and America have brought these traditions with them.[citation needed]

Other regions

Ukraine and Russia contain Romani Muslim populations, as the families of Balkans 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 its staunch preservation of the Romani language and identity.[15]

Most Eastern European Romanies are Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian, or Muslim.[citation needed] Those in Western Europe and the United States are mostly Roman Catholic or Protestant. In southern Spain, many Romani are Pentecostal), but this is a small minority that has emerged in contemporary times.[11] In Egypt, the Romanis are split into Christian and Muslim populations.[citation needed] For countless years, dance has been considered a religious procedure for the Egyptian Romanies.[16] In Turkey, the Romani people are overwhelmingly Muslim, while the majority of Romani in Latin America have maintained their European religions, with most following Orthodox Christianity.[17]


Since World War II, a growing number of Romanis have embraced Evangelical movements. For the first time, Romanies became ministers and created their own, autonomous churches and missionary organizations. In some countries, the majority of Romani belong to the Romani churches. This unexpected change has greatly contributed to a better image of Romanis in society. The work they perform is seen as more legitimate, and they have begun to obtain legal permits for commercial activities.[17]

Evangelical Romani churches exist in every country where Romanis 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 Romanis, with their main church in Mannheim. Other important and numerous Romani assemblies are in Los Angeles, Houston, Buenos Aires, and Mexico.

Philosophical terms

Romanis pay much attention to philosophical questions, usually in connection with Romanipen. Many Romani folk fairy tales, songs and proverbs which are dedicated to philosophical questions. Two Romani philosophical terms are "Romanipen" and "Gadjo".


It is customary to translate this word as "Romani spirit" or "Romani culture." The real meaning is wider. "Romanipen" is Romani spirit, Romani essence, Romani Code and willingness to follow it, self-perception as a member of Romani society and willingness to be such a member, set of "Romani" strains etc., all as part of the whole. Sometimes an ethnically non-Romani who has Romanipen is considered to be Romani (an adopted non-Romani child who has grown up in a Romani family). An ethnic Romani who does not have Romanipen is not considered to be Romani.


A Gadjo man or Gadji woman is a person who does not have Romanipen. Usually this is a person who is not ethnic Romani, but an ethnic Romani may be considered as a Gadjee if he/she has no Romanipen.

Contemporary art and culture



Romani musicians entertaining

The lăutari 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 lăutari tradition is Taraful Haiducilor. Zdob şi Zdub, one of the most prominent rock bands in Moldova, although not Romani themselves, draw heavily on Roman music, as do Spitalul de Urgenţă in Romania.

Flamenco music and dance came from the Romani 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, and the style and performance practices of Romani musicians have influenced European classical composers such as Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms.

Many famous classical musicians, such as the Hungarian pianist Georges Cziffra, are Romani.

Other music

Romanies who came to the Americas contributed to almost every musical style. Guajira from Cuba, the tondero, zamacueca, and marinera from Peru, mariachi music from Mexico, "llanero" from the borders of Venezuela and Colombia, and even American country music have all been influenced by their morose implementation of string instruments, such as violins and guitars.



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.


Many Romani women wear modest and covered clothing to showcase chastity. The clothing Romani women wear have influenced Bohemian fashion. Head scarfs, flowy dresses and thick jewelry are characteristics of Romani fashion.


Each June, Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month is celebrated in London.[18]

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, Romanies and their more settled neighbours have held each other in distrust. The popular image of Romanies 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." The German name Zigeuner is often thought through popular etymology to derive either from Ziehende Gauner, which means 'travelling thieves', or from the Hungarian Cigány from their word "szegény" meaning "poor". The validity of these derivations, however, is disputed.

There are still tensions between the Romanies and the majority population around them. Common complaints are that Romanies steal and live off social welfare and residents often reject Romani encampments. This has led to Romani being described as gypsies "perhaps the most hated minority in Europe."[19] In the UK, travellers (referring to both Irish Travellers and Romanies) became a 2005 general election issue, with Michael Howard, the then-leader of the Conservative Party promising to review the Human Rights Act 1998.[20] 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-Romanies applicants each year and that statistics showed that 90% of planning applications by Romanies 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 Gypsies. 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.[21]

Law enforcement agencies in the United States hold regular on the Romanies and similar nomadic groups.[22]

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 were put back in regular classes.[23]

Romani in Eastern Europe

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

In Eastern Europe, Romani 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 Romani still embrace a nomadic lifestyle, most migration is actually forced, as most communities do not accept Romani settlements.

Many countries that were formerly part of the Eastern bloc and former Yugoslavia have substantial populations of Romanies. The level of integration of Romanies 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. Romanies 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-Romani, whilst Romani unemployment stands at 80%.[24]

In some countries, dependence on social security systems is part of the problem. For some Romani families, it may be preferable to live on social security compared to low-paid jobs. That creates many new problems: anger against Romanies, conditions that produce crime, and extreme sensitivity to changes in social security. A good example of the latter is Slovakia, where reduction of social security (a family is paid allowance only for the first three children) led to civil disorder in several Romani villages.

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 Ramirez 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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  2. Hubschmannova, Milena. "Origin of Roma". ROMBASE. Retrieved 2015-03-03.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Silverman, Carol (24 May 2012). Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora. Oxford University Press. pp. 71–79. Retrieved 4 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Weyrauch, Walter. O (13 August 2001). Gypsy Law: Romani Legal Traditions and Culture. University of California Press. p. 169. Retrieved 4 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Brabant, Malcolm (6 October 2003). "Roma rivalry over child bride ban". BBC News Online. BBC News. Retrieved 24 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  8. 8.0 8.1 Pamporov, Alexey (2006). "Roma/Gypsy population in Bulgaria as a challenge for the policy relevance". Sofia: Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 24 August 2013. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Oprea, Alexandra (21 July 2005). "Child Marriage a Cultural Problem, Educational Access a Race Issue? Deconstructing Uni-Dimensional Understanding of Romani Oppression". European Roma Rights Centre. Retrieved 24 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Matras, Yaron (6 January 2015). The Romani Gypsies. Harvard University Press. p. 86. ISBN 067436838X. Retrieved 6 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 "Roma". Countries and their Cultures. Advameg, Inc. 2012. Retrieved 26 December 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  13. "BLESSED CEFERINO GIMENEZ MALLA 1861-1936". – Visit the Saviour. Voveo Marketing Group. December 2012. Retrieved 26 December 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  16. Gadalla, Moustafa (2004). Egyptian Romany: The Essence of Hispania. Greensboro, North Carolina: Tehuti Research Foundation. ISBN 1931446199. Retrieved 26 December 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. 17.0 17.1 Bernal, Jorge (5 May 2003). "The Rom in the America" (PDF). United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Retrieved 24 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Event to mark Gypsy and traveller day. June 5, 2015.
  19. "Gypsies are 'Europe's most hated'". BBC News Online. BBC News. 26 April 2005. Retrieved 24 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Tory traveller proposals: Your views". BBC News Online. BBC News. 23 March 2005. Retrieved 24 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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External links

  • A Roma Journey A Roma Journey provides explores Romani culture in the Balkans and beyond, including digitised texts, photographs, paintings and recordings of traditional songs.
  • [1] — The Economics of Gypsies
  • Romani Lives - Lungo Drom.