Prof. Nirmala Sharma is an Art Historian and Tagore National Fellow at the National Museum, New Delhi. Presently she is working on the Tibetan scrolls in the National Museum. She held the ICCR chair as a distinguished Professor at Shenshen University, China. She has been a senior fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies. She has travelled extensively for field research and international seminars to Greece, Spain, France, Milan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Russia, BuryAr Republic, Mongolia, Japan, Hong-Kong, Hungary, China, Central Asia (Silk Route), Nepal, Taiwan and United Kingdom.he has studied over 8 languages. Her publications include 8 books, 9 films and 45 research articles.  <>


Birds of Passage

- Prof. Nirmala Sharma


Draped in a silk sari with Sanskrit inscriptions all over as a design pattern, high heels, I was carefully placing every step with a grip on a steep road in Milano, when the girl who was my escort broke the silence with “you look like a queen in sari”. Coming from a girl who was beautiful and in the prime of life, began our conversation. She said that her mother was a Gypsy. With no whereabouts now, she lived with her boyfriend, who was a painter.

The Gypsies, wherever they go set up their tents and spread the paraphernalia from their caravan and remain there for days, months or for years, earning their bread, tending their flock, living every day as if it was the only day they had, till the next call which carried them to a temporary abode elsewhere.

When I was a child, I lived with my parents in Defence Colony. One day far under the old neem tree came some people; the men lit up some fire and begun melting metal, while the women tended the children. Neighborhood gathered with old brass utensils. The nomads melted the brass utensils and poured the molten metal into moulds. Moulds of different deities, mould of Jawaharlal Nehru, some animals and birds. The mould’s turned their old utensils into new and beautiful sculptures of deities for their temple and show pieces for their drawing room. It was interesting to watch them create these objects, watch them speak. They were friendly and cheerful and the homely ambiance they created under the old neem tree was interesting to watch. The neighborhood gathered and spoke to them and they replied with a smile and carried on their work. The atmosphere in the small town turned full of life. As a child, my curiosity to watch the women and the children and the life they created under the tree for about five days was entertainment for me and also for others. As the utensils coming from the houses stopped, they were not there the next day. They were gone leaving behind memories of hard work and life full of love, fun and merriment. They were gypsies, who wandered from place to place for work and taught us the essence of life.

Today like these Gypsies we find the Gaduliya Lohars wandering about making a living by selling household or farming implements. They travel in specially made bullock carts known as Gaduliyas. Here I quote an interesting incident. On April 6, 1955, our then Prime-Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru waited at the Chittorgarh fort in Rajasthan. He was there to welcome the early members of Gaduliya Lohars back into Chittorgarh. On that day over four thousand Gaduliya Lohars made a triumphant entry into the Chittorgarh fort to fulfill a pledge which was taken by their ancestors four hundred years ago. The pledge was to place their foot in the Chittor fort only after it was liberated. They were driven out by Mughal forces led by Emperor Akbar, in a bid to recapture Chittor.

In 1568, the Mughal forces defeated the Rajput army and were about to enter Chittor. The Rajput’s instead of surrendering to the Mughals worshipped the Sun god one last time and made up their mind to fight unto death. Maharana Pratap wished the Lohars who made arms for the army to escape, so that they can continue making arms to fight the Mughals in the future. He convinced the Lohars to escape through a secret passage in the fortress. The Lohars on his advice escaped through the secret passage. The Rajput’s never fled from war but faced and defended unto death. The Lohars were guilty for running away and believed that the Goddess Kali cursed them and condemned them to a wandering life. On the Chittor fort even today bears a tablet in the inscription written in Hindi stating five decisions taken by the Gaduliya Lohars: i) Not to return to Chittorgarh Fort till it was freed; ii) Not to live in permanently settled homes as they believe, their goddess might kill them if they settle down permanently after running away from Chittor; iii) Not to light any kind of light at night; iv) Not to sleep on comfortable beds and always travel with their beds upside down. Jawaharlal Nehru ceremonially turned the bed to say that the penance is over now; v) Not to keep a rope for drawing water from a well as it meant that a woman could not draw water from a well of the village where they undertook ironsmith’s job.

The Chittorgarh tablet further says that the Gaduliya Lohars are living in their carts and moving from place to place in search of their living. They are ashamed that the weapons they made for Maharana Pratap did not help him win the battle and hence they decided to stop making weapons. They made household utensils and agricultural tools and went to remote villages to avoid competing with sedentary smiths. They moved in small groups, each group following its own route. By this way they could keep lasting contacts with the villagers. They very well organized their belongings in respective sections of the cart.

During my visit to Karakoram between the western Himalayas and western branch of Kunlun range, I found people looking very similar to our countrymen, as well as their expressions and habits. I soon noticed that their language incorporated Sanskrit and English. As musicians, trainers of horses and workers in gold and silver, they moved from place to place. It is interesting to find how they branched and spread to various parts of the world. They are the ones who have added music, dancing, romance and colorful elements in our life.

Spread in Europe, America and Central Asia, the wandering gypsies of Europe and America call themselves Romany who have descended from the stock of Punjab, Sind, Saurashtra, Rajputana and Malwa. They have wandered to almost every country in the world for over thousand years. They are our forgotten brothers and sisters. They have Indian blood. They call themselves as ‘Rom’ or ‘manush’ (man) or ‘Zindo’-Hindu.

A.L. Basham, Conrad Ber Covice and many others have done intense research on them. The first exodus of Gypsies from India happened at the time of Alexander. Either they were driven out or fell into his hands or joined him willingly, others are of the thought that Mahmud of Gazni during his seventeen invasions of India took several hundred thousands of slaves from the Jat and Rajput soldiers and civilians from Punjab, Gujarat, Sind and Rajasthan. Since he took slaves from fairer people of Central Asia, the less fair Indian slaves were freed and migrated all the way to Europe by a northern and southern route.

Shah-Nama (story of the kings) quotes of Behram Guar an Iranian King who requested King Shankhala of North India to send twenty thousand musicians for a National celebration. Amazed by their performance, the King requested them to stay back and settle down. He gifted them land, oxen and grains. As they were not farmers they ate the grains and animals. The ruler was furious, he drove them away. They left his country and migrated to Europe via Egypt and Iraq.

Scientist at CSIR’s Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) conducted genetic studies of more than 10,000 global samples to understand a more precise ancestral source of the European Romani population, commonly called as gypsies. In December 2012, they concluded that the early Romani’s migrated from India to Europe around 1,405 years ago. The study found that the aboriginal scheduled caste and scheduled tribe population of north western India traditionally referred to as Doma and also Dalit’s are the most likely ancestral population of modern European Roma. “In the absence of archaeological records and with only scanty historical documentation of the Roma, comparative linguistic studies were the first to identify their Indian origin”. A “phylogeographical” study conducted by them indicates that the Romania’s migrated to Europe by a northern route.

According to researchers, the Gypsies began their trek around Gilgit in the northernmost Hindu Kush, then along the southern Caspian littoral, the southern flank of the Caucasus, the southern shoreline of the Black Sea, across the Bosporus, and subsequently spreading across Europe since 13th century. The presence of Indian-specific Y-chromosome among Roma has corroborated their South Asian origins and later admixture with Near Eastern and European populations. In human population the Y chromosome is passed on from Father to son, therefore all the males of a family or a population evolved from a single founder male will possess the same Y chromosome. The study by matching the haplogroups of the Roma and the Indian tribes, found similarity and contiguity that led to the conclusion that the Domas or Dalits are the ancestral population.

British administrators disparaged them as vagrants and criminals sowing prejudice that survived colonial rule. I cannot resist quoting Thomas Hardy’s novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” here. The novel’s protagonist Tess is beautiful, loyal, young woman living with her impoverished family in the village of Marlott. Tess has a keen sense of responsibility and is committed to doing the best she can for her family, although her inexperience and lack of parenting leave her vulnerable. Her father discovers a link to the noble line of the d’Urbervilles, and as a result, Tess is sent to work at the d’Urbervilles mansion. Unfortunately, her ideals cannot prevent her from sliding further and further into misfortune after she becomes pregnant by Alec d’Urberville. The terrible irony is that Tess and her family is not really related to this branch of the d’Urbervilles at all. The story goes on, how she and her family go through miseries and troubles. The book describes the life of the Gypsies and how they suffer personally, yet bring pleasure in the lives of others.

Today the modernization does not require iron-smiths or Lohars, hence you find them in the old markets or in the suburbs of the town with their men beating hot iron to make tools or sitting with a display of iron utensils and agriculture implements with sparingly a buyer. Earlier when the Gaduliya Lohars arrived, farmers would have all the farm implements repaired and replaced at a lower cost. Now a days Chinese implements are flooding the market, and hence the Gaduliya Lohars are far out of the scene and with the city modernizing, there is no place under the tree or anywhere to make a temporary abode. Their children are learning new techniques which have enabled them to merge in new professions. NGO’s have taken up to provide them roofs, which would enable them to get welfare benefits and enroll their children in schools.

© Author
(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Spring 2016)