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 profession.)

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 commensality.

"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" person.

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 reasons.)

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).


Sachau, Edward C. (ed.) (1989) Alberuni's India. Volumes I and II, New Delhi.
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