Great Migrations: The Origins of the Gypsies

Mathew Martin explores the little-known homeland of Europe’s travelling folk in India’s Kashmir region

Summer was arriving in Kashmir’s Sindh Valley. The ice was retreating up the towering mountains and the fragrant heather was lending the hillsides a cloak of purple. Far below, the river ran wide with melted snow. As the seasons move, so the time comes for annual migrations.

The call of cuckoos carried a melancholy air of farewell, a sound I’d usually associate with autumn in the English countryside. The darting swallows seemed to be taking a final look at their winter home, as they prepared for their astonishing journey to the insect-rich wilderness of Siberia.

The path we were following along the steep slope was only a foot-span wide, marked out by the passage of sheep and cattle. Our destination was a collection of rough stone-built huts, the summer abode of the original Gypsies, who when I visited with a local guide were still on the road, herding their sheep up from their winter pastures.

Today this is a small population, the remnant of a people who started travelling towards the setting sun, and never stopped. Here however, in this remote outpost of Northern India, the Gypsies continue with their ancient twice-yearly migration between lowland and upland.

[pullquote]Why they set out on their epic westward journey, nobody really knows, but it was almost certainly triggered by the sort of persecution that has dogged their steps ever since.[/pullquote]

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 There has always been confusion about the origins of the Gypsies, reflected in the various names they have been given over the years. Gypsy is a shorted form of “Egyptian”, based on a colourful theory that they were descended from the Biblical innkeeper of ‘Little Egypt’ who turned away Mary and Joseph. For this reason, it was suggested, they had embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek forgiveness — hence “Roma”.

Perhaps more accurate is their name in Central Europe — Sinti, which almost certainly is derived from “Sindh”. This theory is backed up by many aspects of Romani culture, particularly the language, which is closely related to Sanskrit. Why they set out on their epic westward journey, nobody really knows, but it was almost certainly triggered by the sort of persecution that has dogged their steps ever since.

Their “summer residences” had none of the luxuries that such a description would usually suggest — no verandas, fountains or rose gardens. Just tiny earth-floored hovels (ironically, this word is possibly related to the Hindi word “haveli” — which means private mansion) with a small hearth and a door. However, they do come with million-dollar views, and herb gardens that stretch from horizon to horizon.IMG_2493 (1)

Quite how old they are would be impossible to guess. But they did carry that sense of antiquity that you can almost taste in very old buildings. I like to think they dated from before the great migration.

The houses are built into the slopes, meaning that the packed earth roof seems to be just an extension of the hillside, a natural ledge on the incline. Approaching from above, it would be easy not to realise you were standing on top of somebody’s home.image (1)

Even though they were all standing empty, it seemed somehow disrespectful to poke around too much, so after taking a few pictures, we headed down the slope to the waiting car.

About half way back to Srinigar — I was staying in a houseboat on the city’s Dal Lake — a turn in the road revealed a field full of tents. These were the neutral-coloured practical sort favoured by refugee agencies and the like. But this wasn’t any sort of humanitarian crisis, just the travelling kit of the returning Gypsies.

From the fleeting view I had, the camp was a cheerful place. Brightly dressed children darted around the tents like swallows on the wing, and women smiled and laughed as they stirred steaming cauldrons of food. Even the large flock of sheep that trimmed the grass around the site seemed content with their lot in life.

My guide seemed to pick up on my train of thought. “They are very happy now,” he said. “Only ten more days walking and they will be home again for the summer.”

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