Gypsy Culture in Transylvania


There is a rich and vibrant Roma Gypsy culture in Transylvania, and although their history is full of persecution and quite appalling treatment, I want to concentrate on the Roma of today. It is quite incredible that so little is known about them when you consider their community makes up approximately 2% of the Romanian population, and estimated to grow rapidly due to a higher than average birth rate.

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

All Gypsies in Romania speak Romanian but many that live in Szekely areas speak Hungarian too. There are also a minority that speak their traditional ancestral Romany which is an Indo-Aryan language with several differing dialects throughout Europe.

Many Gypsies live in abject poverty with a high level of unemployment, living in quite squalid conditions. Although many people maintain this stereotypical image of the Gypsy there are a great number of Roma that live quite differently. There are an increasing number of wealthy Roma businessmen, often living in big houses, many the size of palaces! Then there is a traditional working to middle class group that are usually identified wearing brightly coloured clothes, many are either salaried or self employed living in good quality housing. Then there are the Gypsies that have returned to their traditional past of roaming and living in simple horse drawn carts. Unlike the highly decorated and comfortable western European style gypsy caravans, these have a simple canopy cover along with everything they need to live on the road in search of seasonal work.

The following photographs and text reflect the diversity of Roma Gypsy culture in Romania and I hope will generate a better understanding and appreciation for this often ignored people and culture.

Gypsy funeral wake
Driving through the old Saxon village of Schonberg I came across a Gypsy funeral wake.

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

I only stopped to take a couple of photos, but ended up in the courtyard to take part in the very lively proceedings. They were incredibly hospitable people but had a hard time understanding that I couldn't drink beer as we were continuing our journey to the Transfagarasan highway. They were very animated and seemed genuinely happy that an outsider was showing interest in their culture and not just that of the local Saxon German history.

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

On a recent trip to Cluj Napoca I came across these two Gypsy houses on route. Building a big and highly decorated house is becoming the ultimate Roma hallmark of status and wealth, where personal success is often measured by the number of rooms and size of building you own. The ancestral roots of the Roma originate in India and I believe you can see that influence in the architecture of these houses, especially the rooves.

Gypsy Roma houses

Gypsy Roma house

Gypsy Roma house

Gypsy Roma house

Interestingly, I receive a great number of visits to this page which reflects the fascination with the Roma and their culture. They are an incredibly colourful people, but also very hard to bond with. Of all the people I know here in Transylvania, mostly Szekely Hunagrians and Romanians, only two are Gypsies. They tend to stick to their own and even when on friendly terms, you still don't really feel that you are getting to know them. Maybe this fascination is related to their elusiveness, who knows. But it is easy to forget that the Roma have been persecuted throughout their history and their reluctance to integrate with other societies may reflect their natural instinct for survival and preservation of their very distinct culture. 

Various policies of the former communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu changed the way Roma gypsies lived. The true roaming gypsies were forced to stop travelling and made to live in fixed locations attached to Romanian, Saxon and Szekely villages and towns. This was all part of the then governments control of the population, which was easier to maintain if your subjects are static in a location where you could watch and monitor them. Many Roma although far more mobile these days have in the main stuck to living in their Ceauşescu designated locations, probably due to financial restraints, but also due to the loss of  the traditional  skills and knowledge of living a truly nomadic life. These days many Roma men are choosing to work for higher wages in neighbouring countries such as Hungary, bringing their income home every few weeks to support their often large families.  

There are an increasing minority of Roma that are returning to their ancestral roaming tradition, but this is often due to poor economic standing and certainly cannot be compared with a truly nomadic lifestyle. There is nothing romantic about this way of life and horse and cart are used as a cheap form of  combined accommodation and transport. They can be seen slowly moving from one county to another in search of seasonal farm work, assisting with planting and harvesting crops. Living conditions are basic and cramped and once the fair weather is over they return to their homes for the winter. 

Travelling Gypsies - Transylvania

Note: I have used the term Gypsy (Gispy) purely for the benefit of those wishing to search for more information on the internet. However, it must be noted that many Roma find the term Gypsy offensive. Most refer to themselves as Roma or Roms.

Further reading: Gypsies - The Outsiders by National Geographic