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The Romani and Domari People: Two Distinct Groups With a 1,700-Year-Old History

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J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.


The Mystical ‘Gypsies’

They are said to have mystical powers of fortune-telling and bewitchment. Their passionate temper and irascible personality reflect their indomitable spirit. Legends say that their love of freedom often drives them to commit acts of crime as they wonder in their caravans from one town to the next. They have been accused of spreading disease, abducting children, treachery and murder. Some experts say the same accusations often leveled on Jewish people going back hundreds of years.

Dr. Abigail Rothblatt Bardi writes in The Gypsy as Trope in Victorian and Modern British Literature, the Romani people or Gypsies have been portrayed as having “sinister occult and criminal tendencies” and of being associated with “thievery and cunning.”

In European literature and music, Romani women have been portrayed as seductresses, extravagant, loud, sexually available, exotic and mysterious. These stereotypes have over the years endured and transcended geographical, cultural and societal boundaries. Hollywood and European movies have promoted these characteristics for strictly commercial purposes, meanwhile establishing the image of Gypsy women as archetypical temptresses, enchantresses and sorceresses.

The Real Romani People

The reality, however, is much different from the legends that have over the centuries been created about them.

The Gypsies, as they have been sometimes pejoratively called, are the descendants of two distinct people who began to migrate from the Indian subcontinent sometime around 512 CE. They are the Romani (alternatively called Romany, Rom, or Roma) who speak the Romani language and the Dom or Domari who speak the endangered language Domari. They are both Indo-Aryan ethnic groups who originally migrated mainly to Europe and the Americas from the Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab regions of modern-day India, although today, they can be found all throughout the world.

The English term Gypsy originates from gypcian, which is short for Egyptian. The Spanish term Gitano and French Gitan have similar etymologies as they derive from the Greek Αιγύπτιοι (Aigyptioi), meaning Egyptian, via Latin. This moniker is due to the erroneous belief that both groups were itinerant Egyptians.

Traditionally, being itinerant people not all of the Gypsy groups are considered as nomadic as the Kalbelias who currently live in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Hence, Romani groups such as the Romanichals Travelers of England and the Gitanos of Spain have become less nomadic over the years, many living within smaller communities in South Wales, Northeast Wales, and the Scottish Borders, and, of course, the Spanish Gypsies living all throughout Spain.

The migration of the Romani people through the Middle East and Northern Africa to Europe

The migration of the Romani people through the Middle East and Northern Africa to Europe

Roma People Worldwide

DNA tests and other research have confirmed both the Romani and Domari groups originated from northwest India more than 1,500 years ago. The same research also shows both groups to have been associated with each other while occupying neighboring areas. Although they separated around this time, they share a common history. Their migration subsequently dispersed them widely throughout the world. Today their most concentrated populations are in Mid-West Asia, Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, which includes Turkey, Spain and Southern France.

lag of the Romani people also adopted by the Doms

lag of the Romani people also adopted by the Doms

While they share the same flag, adopted in 1971 by the World Romani Congress, they are considered to be different ethnic groups with different customs and rarely intermingling.

Today, the Dom (also called Domi or Doms) are mainly found scattered across the Middle East, North Africa, Caucasus, Central Asia and still parts of the Indian subcontinent. Their population is estimated to be around 2.2 million. The majority of their population live in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. Smaller groups can be found in Afghanistan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Jordan, Syria and other countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

The Romani, on the other hand is a much larger group, totaling between 12 to 20 million people, making them one of the largest ethnic minorities in Europe. While 70 percent live in Eastern Europe, over a million Roma live in the United States and other countries in the Americas.


The Romani People

In accordance to the human’s rights organization Open Society Foundation, some of the groups that are considered Roma are the Romanichals of England; Beyash of Croatia; Kalé of Wales and Finland; Romanlar from Turkey; Kalbelias from the Rajasthan state of India; and the Iberian Cale from Spain and Portugal.

The Travelers of Ireland are often erroneously considered part of the group, however, they are not ethnically Roma. Although referred to as “Gypsies”, genetic analysis has shown them to be people of Irish extraction who diverged from the settled local population in the 1600s, during the time of the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland.


In the Romani language the word Rom means man or husband. It is related to the words dam-pati which means lord of the house. However, another theory holds that it could be related to doma meaning a low caste of travelling musicians and dancers.

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Romas are unique in that they have never identified with a territory or country. They do not yearn for a distant homeland from which their ancestors might have migrated. They have no concept of national sovereignty but rather identify with the ideal of a freedom which is unconnected to a birthplace or land of origin. This notion of national detachment has perhaps been formed by the fact that they lack a written history. Their origins and history have been passed down through generations by means of legends that often contradict each other.

Until the late 18th century, theories of the origin of the Romani people were at best theoretical. In 1782, German linguistic professor Johann Christian Christoph Rüdiger was able to make the connection between the Romani language and Hindustani. Later his hypothesis was proven showing that Romani people shared a common origin with other Indo-Aryan languages of Northern India. Recently a further connection has been made between Romani and Sinhalese, a language spoken in Sri Lanka.

Iberian or Calo Gypsies a Romani Group from Spain and Portugal

Los Gitanos de España: The Spanish Roma

Known as Gitanos (pronounced heetanos) the Roma people of Spain belong to the Iberian Cale group who are also present in smaller numbers in Portugal and southern France.

Gypsies performing at a Cafe in Sevilla c. 1940 — De CARLOS TEIXIDOR CADENAS

Gypsies performing at a Cafe in Sevilla c. 1940 — De CARLOS TEIXIDOR CADENAS

They are known for a strong sense of identity and cohesion due to a shared value system known as the Gypsy laws or ‘leyes gitanas.’ These social codes call for Cale Gypsies to maintain their social circles limited to within their own and often practice endogamy or the practice of marrying within their ethnic group.

Gypsy wedding in Portuga

Gypsy wedding in Portuga

It is not entirely known how the Gitanos arrived in the Iberian Peninsula, however a popular theory purports they came via North Africa by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. This theory is bolstered by the fact that they were originally called ‘Tingitanis’ or Gypsies from Tingis (today Tangiers).

Another theory is that they came from France by perhaps crossing over the Pyrenees mountain range through the granting of safe passage in Perpignan, France by Prince of Aragon Alfonso in 1415. It is believed the first Gypsy to arrive in the peninsula was Juan de Egipto Menor (John of Egypt Minor) who also received a letter of insurance from Alfonso V in 1425.


For the 300 years that followed, Romanies were subjected to a number of laws meant to expulse them from Spain. Gypsy settlements were broken up and the residents dispersed. Sometimes, Romanies were required to marry non-Roma people and were prohibited from using their language and rituals. In 1749 major raids were organized by the government to get rid of the Gypsy population. Romani were arrested and imprisoned, although major discontent from the population at large forced the government to release them.


No other art form is more descriptive of the Gitano culture in Spain than flamenco. The word flamenco applies to the song, dance and guitar used and performed by the Gypsy artists. While much of the information regarding the origin of this art form has been lost in history, it is certain Andalusia is its birthplace.


Flamenco is a hybrid music that evolved from when the Arabs dominated Spain between the 8th and 15th century. After their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula their music and musical instruments were modified and adapted by Christians and Jews, later by Gypsies.

During the mid-1700 to mid-1800s, flamenco’s popularity increased to the point in which schools teaching the art form where created in Cadiz and Seville. This was the time that flamenco dance and singing became a permanent fixture in the ballrooms, bars and stages of the era.


Initially, flamenco songs and dance were performed without musical accompaniment; only by the rhythmical clapping of hands called toque de palmas (palm playing). In the mid-1800s, classical guitarist Julian Arcas introduced guitar playing to this genre.

The Golden Age of Flamenco considered to be between 1869–1910 saw this Gypsy art form performed in all cafés cantantes (music cafes) and many other art venues.

Ballet Flamenco Andalucia — N.Y.C.

The Kalbelia a Romani People Also Known as the Cobra Gypsies

With a tradition of snake charming and venom trading that goes back more than a millenia, the Kalbeliyas or Kalbelias are a tribe of wondering Roma native to the state of Rajasthan in northern India. Their ancestors captivated the imagination of royalty and statesmen with the tricks they performed with serpents. These performances later developed into public shows at the local fairs and bazaars through which they travel.

They are known for a dance form also known as Kalbeliya which has evolved over time and is intricately linked to their lifestyle and history. The dance’s hypnotic and emotional quality encompasses serpentine and reptilian movements representing the cobras which they specialize in charming. In fact, the name Kalbelia means those who love snakes.


Since ancient times, the Kalbeliyas have been frequently moving from one place to another. They do this while the men carry cobras in cane baskets and their women sing, dance and beg for alms.

They revere the cobras and advocate for their preservation. They specialize in safely removing any serpent which inadvertently enters a home. Once they catch the reptile, they take it far away from the village without killing it.

They are a fringe group in society living outside villages residing in makeshift camps called deras. The Kalbelias typically move their camps in a nomadic fashion, creating a circle which they repeat at the end of each cycle. As an alternative source of income, they are experts in local fauna and flora which they use to make herbal remedies they sell to the people of the villages they visit.

Kalbelia Dance from Rajasthan

Where the Romani People Live Today


Anti-gypsy Sentiments

It is known by different names: antiziganism, anti-Romanyism, Romaphobia or anti-Romani sentiment. However, they all describe the same type of hostility, prejudice, racism and discrimination directed at the Romani people and non-Romani itinerant groups of Europe who are also referred to as gypsies. (Some of the non-Romani itinerant groups of Europe are the Yenish, Irish Traveller, Indigenous Norwegian Travellers and the Dutch Woonwagenbewoners.)

Antiziganism goes back hundreds of years, especially in Europe. Some of the hostility and abuse aimed at the Romani in Europe are as follows:


The Domari People

The Dom People and Their Culture

It was originally believed that the Dom people were part of the Romari until a time in which they split up. Recent research of the Domari language suggest they were a separate group who departed the Indian subcontinent earlier than the Romani, probably around the 6th century.

Domari woman in Israel

Domari woman in Israel

From early times, the Dom people have possessed an oral tradition which has expressed their culture and history through poetry, music and dance. Consequently, there are three predominant Domari legends about their origin.

In one legend the Persian Shah invited a population of some 10,000 Indian musicians (or luri) to come to Persia and serve as official performers. Attempts by the king to have them settle in Persia failed causing the Dom to remain nomadic.

The second legend portrays the Doms initially as Arabs whose connection to India is not original but rather inflicted upon them by expulsion from their original lands. This legend falls in line with the notion that the profession peripatetic (nomadic) performance was imposed upon them as a punishment by Salem ez-Zīr from the tribe of Kleb. The punishment handed down to them said that they must always wander in the wilderness during the hottest hours of the day, ride only donkeys, and live exclusively from singing and dance.

Domari Children in Lebanon

Domari Children in Lebanon

Finally, the third legend states that in the 11th century, India was attacked by a Turko-Persian Muslim general, whose aim was to push Islam into India. As non-Aryan Indians from a lower castes of society, they were conscripted as foot soldiers. During the battles they headed west into Persia and stayed there at the end of the hostilities, rather than return to the discrimination they faced in India. Although they stayed in Persia for a long period of time, eventually many continued to travel as far west as Armenia and Greece. Eventually, some arrived in Europe, while others went to Syria, Egypt, and North Africa.

The Dom people have long specialized in metalwork and in entertainment. However, these two professions have been associated with different tribes or clans. The sedentary clans or tent-dwellers have for centuries worked as tinners, smiths, producers of skewers, horseshoe makers and other metal artifacts. The more itinerant or nomadic groups are for the most part dancers and entertainers.

The Doms are divided into the following clans or tribes:


Domari Society of Gypsies

The Domari Society of Gypsies, Established in Jerusalem by Amoun Sleem, a Gypsy woman who has lived in the community her entire life, was founded in October of 1999. It is a non-profit organization that aims to combat the major issues the Dom people face such as discrimination, cultural marginalization and poverty. It focuses on cultural awareness, empowerment of women and education for the children of the Dom people.


Resources and Further Reading

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