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  • Gypsies of Kosovo : History and Caste System

    Their History and Caste System

    The Gypsies of Kosova: Their History and Caste System

    The term "Gypsy" today it is not politically correct. But in Kosova that may be the only practical way to refer to the people who are still under that etymological stigma.

    Before 1990 Gypsies in Kosova were divided into two groups, Roma and Hashkalija. Since 1990, the Gypsies have classified into three groups, Roma, Hashkalija and Egyptian. The Roma are sub-classified into 12 castes. All groups identified themselves under the general term Maxhupi, which translates as Gypsy. DNA testing someday may make the relationship between these groups more understandable. For the moment we have to rely on the historical record, language, customs and oral traditions to understand why they have divided themselves into two groups.

    Under Turkish domination, the Kosovar Egyptians were called Hashkalija which in Turkish means nothing more than Gypsy. Maxhupi is the other name all Kosovar Gypsies are known by. The etymology of the word is not clear. A Turkish doctor said it was an old Turkish word for Gypsy. A Macedonian professor of linguistics said it was the Albanian word for Gypsy. Many Roma experts believe this is a derogatory term, but most Roma and Hashkalija in Kosova used this term to identify themselves.

    All Roma originated in India. Which part of India, is another question. From their language, many experts feel the Roma originated in Greater Punjab (NE Pakistan, NW India and most of Rajasthan). There is solid evidence for this assumption since many Punjabis today can understand some of the Roma language, depending upon the dialect. But the grammar is another matter. Roma grammar indicates an origin in NE India, in the area of Bihar, the ancestral homeland of the pre¥Dravidian people called the Dom. Since the "d" and the "r" in Panjabi are interchangeable, many experts feel that the Rom and Dom are one in the same. From my experience with both people, I believe they are related because they share so many customs., traditions, oral histories, characteristics and music. For the past few thousand years, the Doms have also been found in Greater Punjab under a series of subcastes, namely the Banjari and Khebeli (Gabeli) who have maintained their caste names in Eastern Europe.

    When did the Roma leave India? The answer may be lost forever, but most likely the Roma have been emigrating out of India for thousands of years. Major movements, however, have been established. One such movement was in 1308 when the Lohar caste was defeated defending their ancestral city in Rajasthan; The Lohars have been documented as arriving in Eastern Europe around 1320. This is an important date in the history of the Kosovar Gypsies because the Lohars are the blacksmith caste of India. They became nomadic after their defeat and were known to roam in highly decorated wagons pulled by either black water buffalo or small Punjabi ponies, both of which can be found in Kosova today. The largest Roma caste in Kosova is the Kovachi, which is the Serbian translation for blacksmith.

    Most "Gypsies" in Kosova trace their genealogy through oral tradition back to a blacksmith. In fact, the most common oral history that I have collected among the Roma and the Kosovar Egyptians speak of nine brothers, all blacksmiths, who came from Turkey to Kosova over five hundred years ago. Once in Kosova, they separated, going to nine different towns. According to most oral histories, all Gypsies in Kosova are descended from those nine brothers.

    It is well know that the Lohars did not travel alone. Like all great movements out of India in those times they had their camp followers: transporters, musicians, dancers, even fortune tellers. In lesser numbers these same professional castes are to be found today in Kosova, namely the Rabagi (transporters), Gabeli (acrobats, dancers), Arlia (musicians) and Chergari (fortune tellers).

    The next big question in understanding the Gypsies of Kosova is: did the Roma (Kovachi, Rabagi, Vlahy, Gabeli, Chergari and Arlia) find "Gypsies" already here when they arrived around 1320? Some Kosovar Gypsies, who today call themselves Egyptian, say yes, their ancestors were here.

    If true, their history in Kosova is much older than that of the Roma who left India in the 14' century. According to the oral histories I have collected from these "Gypsies," their ancestors came from Egypt. This is a curious tale, because the only other "Gypsies" who claim their ancestors came from Egypt are the Gitanos of Spain (Gitano means Egyptian in old Spanish). Neither the Gitanos nor the Kosovar Egyptians (also known as Hashkalija) speak Romani. But from their characteristics, customs, tradition and music, not to mention their oral histories, both these groups of "Egyptians" have all the hallmarks of Roma from India.

    Many experts believe these so-called Egyptian Gypsies left India with Alexander the Great and were the blacksmiths and camp followers of his army as it traveled to Egypt. Several Yugoslav historians have written that these Egyptian Gypsies probably came with the Arab army that laid siege to Dubrovnik in the 9th century. Perhaps after that failed siege, they deserted (or were abandoned) and made their way into Macedonia to pay homage to Alexander the Great who took their ancestors from India to Egypt. In any case, it appears that these Egyptian Gypsies arrived so long ago in Kosova that they lost their Punjabi language. When the Roma appeared in the 14' century, the Serbs and Albanians must have assumed these dark¥skinned people were blood brothers because the Serbs and Albanians used the same word for them, i.e. Maxhupi. Certainly the Hashkalija had some of the same customs practiced only by the Roma, such as washing men's clothes separately from women's.

    Gypsy, by the way, is the 16th century English translation of the. Spanish word Gitano. Gitano is the 15' century Spanish translation of the word Egyptian.

    Today in Kosova these are the Gypsy names/castes you are mostly like to come across:

    Roma

    Chisto Rom: This means pure Rom, the best Roma. Many Roma castes call themselves "chisto Rom," especially the Kovachi. Most Roma speak Romani, Serbian and Albanian. But Serb Roma speak only Serb and some Roma do not speak Albanian. The Roma are made up of the following castes:

    Kovachi: The Serb translation of blacksmith, the Lohar caste of India.

    Burgogia: A Kosovar subcaste of the Kovachi.

    Rabagi: The transporters caste. In Kosova most Rabagi still transport goods with horse and wagon for clients. Before the war, some Rabagi had small vans, and some even had taxis. The Gurbeti are a subcaste. Some prefer not to work and live off the generosity of other people. Many Gurbeti are traders, some are smugglers. Some Gurbeti are very wealthy "traders." Many Gurbeti practice the Serbian Orthodox religion.

    Vlahy: If there is still a pure caste that follows the old ways, traditions and customs of the Roma, the Vlahy are those people. They are found throughout Europe under their own name. They are considered hard workers, and like the Kovachi many are usually educated. In Albania they are known as the Felia. A small percentage of Vlahy are involved in petty crime such as pickpocketing.

    Gabeli: Today they are usually poor ditch diggers, construction workers, almost anything to do with physical labor. But their caste can be traced directly back to the Khebeli of India who were acrobats, dancers, snake charmers. In India many are professional criminals who also prostitute their wives and daughters.

    Chergari: These are the Gypsies whose women are fond of wearing lots of gold, telling fortunes, and reading palms. The men usually earn their living sharpening knives or repairing umbrellas. Many are nomadic in the spring and summer, usually today in motor homes. The Chergari are considered by other Roma as the thieves and liars of their race. Today in the Balkans the Chergari are not found in Kosova, only in Serbia. The Vrashari are a subcaste found only in Serbia. Both castes are usually Orthodox or Catholic in religion.

    Arlia: These are the professional musicians, many having studied in conservatories. They are an industrious people, usually educated. In Kosova many lived in the city of Prishtine until the war dispersed them. In Gjilan, over 90% of the Roma were Arlia. Many owned shops and boutiques before they were burned out by Albanians after the war.

    Maxhupi (Magjupi): Although many foreigners think this is a derogatory name for Kosovar Roma/Hashkalija, this is what they call themselves when speaking with each other.

    Hashkalija

    Hashkalija: Until the Yugoslav government created more minorities to offset the Albanians in Kosovo, there were only two groups of Gypsies in Kosova: Roma and Hashkalija. Some Hashkalija believe they originated in Turkey where there is a village called Askale. In Turkish the word for Gypsy is Askale. The Hashkalija are the largest class of "Gypsies" in Kosova.

    Egyptians: Until the Yugoslav government issued a new series of ethnic classifications in the early 1990s which officially recognized some Kosovars as Egyptians, they were called Hashkalija. Since the war, many Hashkalija/Egyptians refuse to be called anything but Albanian Mussulmen. Like their Hashkalija "cousins," all have Albanian surnames and speak only Albanian. Although their oral tradition usually speaks of an ancestor who was a blacksmith, most of their fathers and grandfathers were small farmers.

    All of these castes (except Chergari and Vrashari) can still be found today in Kosova. Usually these castes do not intermarry.