Excerpts from Roma by WR Rishi

ETYMOLOGY OF THE WORD "GAJO"


The word 'Gajo', also pronounced as 'Gazho' (plural-'Gaje' or 'Gazhe') is used by the Roma in a contemptuous sense for a non-Rom (non-Gypsy). Not only this, its use is often made to convey a sense of great hatred as if all the non-Rom are their exploiters and oppressors and no less than enemies. A Rom will never take a Gajo into his confidence. Even the Gypsy life and culture, their marriage customs, death and birth ceremonies observed by Gypsies are "not for a Gajo to know and are not revealed under normal circumstances at all". The immense amount of suffering that Roma have endured at the hands of Gaje in all countries makes this a sad fact. Many of the Gaje have questioned motives for wanting to identify with Roma and in the past the Roma have sometimes suffered as a result. The contempt for the Gajo has gone to the extent that even the utensils in which a meal is served by a Rom to a Gajo are considered to have been polluted and are kept separate.

The meaning of the word as given by Mr. John Sampson in his book "The Dialect of Gypsies of Wales" are "one not of Gypsy Race, Gentile, Stranger, Alien, Filthy". He has traced the root of this word in Sanskrit word 'Garhya' (domestic), in Prakrit-Gajja. This leads us to somewhat faulty conclusion that the word was used for all sedentary people because Roma are a wandering race. But this somehow does not lead us to the answer of the basic issue i.e. why such a sense of contempt should be associated with this word.

Yaska the first etymologist in Sanskrit, whose work is available, says that to find out proper meanings of a word we must look to history and social conditions of the time and area where these words are used. So grammar and derivations are not sufficient enough to tell us why a particular sense has come to be associated with a particular word. Similar is the case of the word 'Gajo'. It is the history which leads us to the right conclusion, where we can find the true meaning of this word.

Roma have originated from the north of India. This has been proved sufficiently by linguistic evidences and many other factors and has now been accepted by scholars all over the world. Roma are Rajputs and Jats of India or men and women of India belonging to warrior classes whose ancestors migrated from India about a thousand years ago. Besides linguistic proofs I have used blood tests and cultural affinities as further evidences. So it is clear that. only the history of India can give us the answer why the word 'Gajo' should convey a sense of hatred and contempt.

The word Gajo or Gaze is the changed form of word Ghazi and with Rajasthani and Braj influence it has changed into Gazho or 'Gajo' where masculine, singular adjectives end in 'o' e.g. kalo (black), baro (big) etc. etc. This was in India that a king named Mahmud Ghazni (Mahniud Ghaznvid) came and attacked India about seventeen times between 1001-1026 A.D. Mahmud Ghazni ruled from Ghazni, a city in Afghanistan. The Kingdom of Ghazni at the time of Mahmud's accession consisted of the country called Afghanistan and Khorason, the eastern province of Persia. The people of this kingdom were also called Ghazis. The famous historian of India Dr. Ishwari Prasad has remarked "to the Mussalman of his day he was a Ghazi who tried to exterminate infidelity in heathen lands". Mahmud Ghaznvi's first attack was in 1001 near Peshawar and he took away with him as many as 500,000 people as slaves. Many more fled from their homes. In his subsequent attack more atrocities and cruelties were laid on Indian people. It is said about him that "he came, burnt, killed, plundered, captured and went".

For Muslims of his day he was Ghazi meaning a Mohammadan warrior, a slayer of infidels. The word Ghazi has become Ghazo or Gajo in the Romani language and is used to denote a non-Rom, non-Gypsy, a stranger as also a bad and dangerous nation (masculine adj. have endings in 'o' in the Romani language, because of Rajasthani influence). In his last attack in 1026 he faced lats from the Panjab. Those were the people who left their homes because of terror of Mahmud and became Gypsies or Roma in foreign lands. They developed a natural hatred for Ghazi, and that is why they called every non-Gypsy a 'Gajo' who had tortured and oppressed them. In fact Mr. A.P. Barannikov in his Romani-Russian Dictionary has given the meaning of the word 'Gazbaiben' as 'theft, stealing or plundering, All this is clearly proved by the above fact.

The following Romani folk-tale from Bulgaria also supports that the Roma left their mother country because of the Moslem invasions and destruction caused by them. The folk tale as related by Ali Chaushev from Shumen in East Bulgaria runs as under : Siyas amen ekh baro thagar-Rom. Ov siyas amaro prins. ov siyas amro padishaxos. O Roma beshenas o zuman savre kidende ekh thaneste, ekh lache vilayscheste. Kale vilayecbesko alav siyas sind......

"We used to have a great king, a Gypsy. He was our prince. He was our king. The Gypsies used to live all together at that time in one place, in one beautiful country. The name of our chief was Mar Amengo Dep. He had two brothers. The name of one was Romano, the name of the other was Singan. That was good, but then there was a big war there. The Moslems caused ' the war. They made ashes and dust of the Gypsy country. All the Gypsies fled together from their own land. They began to wander as poor men in other countries, in other lands. At that time the three brothers took their followers and moved off; they marched along many roads. Some went to Arabia, some went to Byzantium, some went to Armenia.

The story was told to me by my old grandfather. He died but he left this tale behind with us".(1)

The above mentioned theory about the word 'Gajo' gets support from yet another folk story from Hungary. Mr. Lakatos Menyhart from Budapest writes to me in a letter that amongst the Roma of Hungary there is a "Gypsy story of Moslem occupation of North India. According to this story around the year 1100-1200 Moslem armies, which were trying to spread Islamic religion were led by Pasha Machmut. The headquarters of Pasha Machmut were in this city Gadzso in North of India. Each spring Moslem army started a campaign against North India causing a lot of destruction in the area. They did not want to occupy territory but only to convert people. After the campaign the army always moved back to the city of Gadzso. This is the reason why the name Gadzso became so frightening for the people". This Pasha Machmut was none else than Mahmud Ghaznvi and history bears it out very clearly why he was so much hated. Hence the word 'Gajo' or' 'Gazho' is a changed form of word Ghazi and has become associated with a sense which does not become clear if we do not look towards history.

1. Donald Kenrick and Grattan Puxon-The Destiny of Europe's Gypsies. Sussex University Press 1972.



The works of Dr. W. R. Rishi published on these pages are excerpted with the author's permission from his book, Roma - The Panjabi Emigrants in Europe, Central and Middle Asia, the USSR, and the Americas (published 1976 & 1996 Punjabi University, Patiala, India. All of the contents of these pages are copyright© W. R. Rishi, all rights reserved. No portions of this text may be reproduced without the permission of the author at: Roma Publications 3290/15-D - 160 015 Chandigarh, India phone: 0172 548941
This and the associated pages were created by Nadia & Peter as a tribute to the life and work of Dr. W. R. Rishi, Director of the Indian Institute for Romani Studies at Chandigarh, India. For technical aspects send email to roma@romani.org   This page, and those identified by the yellow background and Romani flags were created by and copyright© Peter. Last updated 8/98.

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