Jati is the word for caste used (in phonetic variations) in
Indian languages. Although it is no longer used in Romani, its socio-cultural meaning
functions in Roma society with the majority of its socio-cultural implications.
A jati is a community of relatives characterised by one of the
basic traditional "caste" professions (with possible supplementary
means of support that may not rule them out of the ritual status of the main
Castes are economically mutually complementary, i.e. their members
exchange the specific products and services of their professions. In the social
sphere, non-contact separates the castes from each other: They keep social distance.
Just as in India, traditional Roma society mainly practices endogamy and prohibits
"Endogamy" means that a member of one caste may not marry someone
from another caste. In some localities in southern Slovakia (around Šaľa and Galanta)
where Vlach Roma and so-called Rumungri
(Ungrika-Roma) live in one village, endogamy remains an unbreakable rule.
(On the other hand, as, for example in Petrovany [near Prešov] or in Ľubica
[near Kežmarok] you can find marriages between Vlach Roma
and Servika-Roma. As in India, breaking the endogamy rule
occurs only in exceptional cases. The social position such couples and their children have is very difficult.
"Commensality", or eating together at the same table, was mentioned
as early as the eleventh century by the Arab historian, Al-Bírúní. He wrote: "Each of the four castes (he had in mind four
varny) when eating together, must form a group for
themselves, one group not being allowed to include two men of different castes." (Alberuni's India, 1989, p. 102)
As in India, the commensality prohibition in traditional Roma societies further
indicates that those who consider themselves "higher" (ritually
"clean") may never accept food in the home of someone whose
jati occupies a lower place in the social hierarchy. [Mahrime] If the
caste difference is not too great, "clean"
("higher") people may accept kaččá kháná
(raw food) which has not been touched by the hand of the "lower"
In India this would be fruit or milk. Traditionally, Servika Roma
interpret the expression kaččá kháná as being
šuko chaben (literally, dry food), foodstuffs bought in a
shop: packaged cookies, rolls, salami. Pakká kháná (Hindi), or
cooked food (Romani: tado chaben), is offered to and accepted
by only those who consider themselves to be of a caste of equal rank.
If a žužo Rom, a ritually clean Rom, invites a
degeše, he will throw away the dishes on which the food
was eaten. No member of the household would ever eat off those dishes again. In
India, the custom is almost exactly the same.
One of the important distinguishing features among the various Indian (and Romani)
jatis is that of permitted/forbidden food.
Žuže Roma do not eat unclean kinds of meat, such
as meat from horses, dogs and cats (and sometimes meat from wild animals). In India,
horsemeat and also pork are considered unclean. (Beef is forbidden for religious
In India – as in some areas in Slovakia – various professions are considered
unclean if the participants must touch unclean natural materials and matter. In
India, these include skin, but also dirt and, of course, garbage. Therefore
jatis that work with these materials (including drummers –
they touch drums' skin tops) have a very low standing. Echoes of this Indian
tradition are still apparent in some Roma communities.
The professions of fellmonger (animal-skin merchant), knacker (a person who buys animal carcasses or
slaughters useless livestock) and gelder (swine castrator) are
"unclean", and a "žužo Rom"
would keep a caste distance from people who practice those professions. Sometimes
even producers of adobe bricks those who dig wells or grave diggers were
low in the hierarchy. (Elsewhere, necessity has forced Roma to make a living by
producing adobe bricks while practicing their traditional professions, whether they
be blacksmiths or musicians.)
Although – as was stated at the beginning – the term jati
does not exist in Romani, caste barriers between Romani families and groups have
never been completely obliterated and caste hallmarks (permissible/forbidden foods,
clean/unclean professions), terms of caste hierarchy and caste distance have remained
very similar to those of traditional Indian society. On the other hand, in recent
times, the process of political emancipation has been developing and the number of
Roma with a secondary school and even a university education has been growing. There
has been an unprecedented increase in the number of political and cultural
organisations. These are now in close and frequent contact, which leads to
cooperation at international level. All of this has at least led to a basic
weakening of the traditional distances between various groups (castes).