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Gypsy. Noun. Member of a wandering people of Hindu origin with dark skin and hair living often by basket-making, horse-dealing, fortune-telling, etc., and speaking a language related to Hindi; person resembling or living like a Gypsy; from the word Egyptian, from the supposed origin of these people when they appeared in England in the early 16th century.” – Oxford Dictionary.

Hindu origin? Gypsies? Those colorful people that we see in Larger American cities – an in San Francisco – that Westerners have always assumed were of European origin? When I think of Gypsies I think of someone like Yul Brynner, the actor, whose mother was a Gypsy. How can the Oxford Dictionary be wrong?

It’s not. The original homeland of the Gypsies around the world – whether they live in New York City, Bucharest, or Istanbul – is the Sindhu or Indus river waatershed in the Indian subcontinent. The wandering tribes of this region ( like the present day Banjaras of Rajasthan, for example) began moving westward around 1000 A.D. for reasons that have been lost in time. Perhaps they were carried away by invaders. Perhaps they were intrinsically nomadic. Whatever the reason, a great gypsy migration began about a thousand years ago.

Ironic as it may seem, most Gyspsies themselves are unaware of their Indian origins. It is to scholars of Romany, the language spoken by Gypsies around the world, that we owe our knowledge of the geographic origin these wandering people. Linguists have shown that Romany is derived from Sanskirt, as are modern North Indian languages such as Hindi. The Gypsy word for priest, rashai,descends from the Sanskrit rishi. Romany words such as pani (water) and bal (hair) are identical to those in Hindi. Others are close: the Gypsy title for a great lady is rawnie, related to the Hindi wordrani (queen).

These linguists-turned-detectives were eventually able to identify the era in which these migrations started, and even the route that the wanderers took through Western Asia and Europe, by studying the Romany language and its many dialects.

About 1000 A.D., the Aryan dialects of North India were changing into the forms we hear today. The Romany tongue of Europe includes some but not all of those changes. Gypsies must therefore have left the lands of the Indus river watershed about a thousand years ago.

They firs moved into Persian-speaking regions – Afghanistan and Iran – where they picked up the Persian words for silk, wool, and ocean.

Then, it is believed, the trail forked. Once group headed southwest toward Syria and North Africa, picking up Arabic words as they went. The majority, however, turned northwest from Iran to Armenia, traveling through Turkey to Istanbul.

They had reached Greece by 1100 A.D. – only a century after leaving India! – where they picked up Byzantine Greek words for market, table, chair, road, and horseshoe. They had reached Yugoslavia by the year 1348, Rumania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Switzerland by 1416, Rome by 1422, Barcelona by 1425, Paris by 1427, Russia by 1501, Sweden by 1512, and England by 1514.

The Gypsies occasionally imparted Romany words to the languages of the regions through which to which they passed. The English word pal comes from the Romany word pal meaning brother.

Gypsies eventually made their way to the United States. Some came in the 1600s, having been deported from Europe. Most came late in the 19th century, from Russia, Serbia, Hungary, and Rumania. Until the 1930s most wandered he country-side trading horses, mending pots and pans, and telling fortunes.

The depression and the automobile pushed them into the cities. Nowadays, we find Gypsies generally doing odd jobs and telling fortunes, concentrating insuch cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, Toledo, Boston, New York, Portland, and, of course, San Fransisco.

They number about 100,000 in the United States, and between one and ten million world wide, mostly concentrated int he Soviet bloc countries.

It is important to note that there are many groups of nomadic peoples, especially in India, who resemble Gypsies but are not classified by scholars as true Gypsies. The deciding factor is language – if they do not speak Romany, or a derivative of Romany, they are no considered Gypsies.

To this day, North Indian customs can clearly be seen in European Gypsy culture. In some Gyps communities, the hands and hair of the bride are dyed with henna (Indian method) and she s given a ritual bath before the ceremony. Marriages are arranged early in life, and many are arranged. White is the color of mourning. Lively songs and dances and colorful clothing are an important part of Gypsy life. There are even people who say that the Gypsies have a distinct case system, brought with them all the way from India. Over the centuries, Gypsies have adopted the religion of the region they have traversed. European Gypsies are Christian. Middle Eastern Gypsies are Muslim.

Some modern day Gypsies settle down for a period of their lives (while their children are in school, for example) and resume their nomadic life-style later. Many still use horse-drawn wagons, while others use house trailers or even land orvers!

Just what is it that makes Gypsies so unique? How is it that a thousand years after leaving their Indian homeland, they still speak their native tongue Romany? Although Gypsies have intermarried (there are plenty of blond gypsies today), why is it that the non-Gypsy of the couple is assimilated into Gypsy culture, but not vice versa?

Gypsies, with their darker skin and different customs, have traditionally aroused great hostility in their European hosts. They have been looked down, constantly suspected of stealing and cheating, and discriminated against. One of the many goals of Hitler’s “perfect society” was the complete eradication of Gypsies from Germany. Thousands died in his concentration camps.

Such social opposition has created a certain resilience and unity among the Gypsies. If people accepted Gypsies, perhaps the Gypsies would have ceased to exist as a group. But then, if people accepted Gypsies, those very same people would have also imbibed mamy more aspects of Gypsy culture.

Bart McDowell, of the National Geographic Society, retraced the route of Gypsy migration by driving overland from France to India. The result of his great adventure is the book Gypsies – Wanderers of the World. It makes for fascinating reading, and is packed with dazzling photographs.