Roma Culture in Transylvania

by Paul White

There is a rich and vibrant Roma 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

Most Roma 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 Roma live in abject poverty with high levels of unemployment and are poorly educated. However, this often held stereotype is false and like any other society there are both rich and poor Roma. And just like many of the wealthy across this world there are those that demonstrate their riches and status by building extravagant homes, often with the size and appearance of palaces.

Roma palace

Then there's the traditional working and middle classes which are usually identified wearing brightly coloured clothes. Many are either salaried or self employed living in good quality housing.

There are also a 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.

Roma caravan from Neamț

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

Roma funeral wake

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

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

Gypsy funeral wake - Schonberg

Roma Culture - Wise Elder

I only stopped to take a couple of photos, but ended up in the courtyard to take part in this very lively event. They were incredibly hospitable and 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 trip to Cluj Napoca I came across these two Roma houses that had just been constructed. The ancestral roots of the Roma originate in India and I believe you can see the cultural influence in their architecture, especially the roofs.

Gypsy Roma houses

Gypsy Roma house

Gypsy Roma house

Gypsy Roma house

I receive a lot of interest in this page which reflects the fascination many have with Roma culture. Whilst they are an incredibly colourful and interesting ethic minority in Romanian society, they can also be aloof and hard to connect with. Of all the hundreds of people I know here in Transylvania, mostly Szekely Hunagrians and Romanians, only two are Roma. They tend to stick to their own and even when on friendly terms, you still don't feel that you know them. Maybe this fascination is related to their elusiveness, who knows. That said it is easy to forget that the Roma have been persecuted throughout history which may explain their reluctance to integrate with other societies.

Various policies of the former communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu changed the way Roma lived. The true roaming Roma 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 one location where you could watch and monitor them.

Although the Roma have as much freedom as anyone else living in Romania today, many remain in their Ceauşescu designated locations, most probably due to financial restraints, but also due to the loss of  traditional  skills and knowledge they had when living a truly nomadic life. Today many Roma men are choosing to work for higher wages in other parts of the European Union, bringing their income home every few weeks to support their often large families.

Note: Please be aware that the Roma often find the term Gypsy (Gispy) offensive. Most refer to themselves as Roma or Roms.