For a course named The Modern City in South Asia and its Afterlives taught by Prof. Will Grover, we were asked to build imaginary cities. About 25 of us collectively built a city named Tsura. You can find more about Tsura here: http://tsuracity.weebly.com/ . Five of us worked on developing the city ‘s culture. The following is an account of Tsura’s culture authored by an anthropologist.
Tsura is an island with a strong but rich and assorted flavour. The Roma settlers found a homeland in Tsura following years of jeopardised living as third rate citizens in countries across Europe. Their arrival in clusters to settle in their new found home after centuries of nomadic living brought to the island a variety of customs and ways of living and a common hope for a better future. These incomers built a nation from an empty, undiscovered island and a misplaced populace. My study intends to trace the evolution of this civilization starting from the first days of Romas in Tsura. During my first days at the island, I travelled intensely through the lowlands where the first Roma settlers lived. The port area of this old city is known as the most momentous in the history of Tsura. This area has a life of its own and is distinct from the rest of the city; it instantly resonated with me, for its age told me about different time periods and cultures that had met here. I realized quite early in my research that Loannes, as the old city is known, is the reference point for Tsura’s past; the name, Loannes, meaning ‘God is gracious’, denotes the immense emotional meaning the place has in the hearts of the people. The archaic texture to the architecture recounts how the early settlers mimicked the European style of infrastructure that was familiar to them. Loannes not only has historic value, but also has nostalgia associated with it as this was where many Roma clans gave up their nomadism and settled collectively striving to work toward a collective good. All residential spaces in Loannes possess some common properties; every house almost seems like a replica of the others giving a notion that a small group of the initial settlers worked on construction projects for all clans.
After my time in Loannes, I proceeded to Fonza, the modern centre of the city. The road connecting Fonza and Loannes cuts through the forest like the grooves of a never ending serpent. The forest has provided great economic benefit to the the community. I learned that even in their initial days, while clearing forest patches to make space for the settlement, the Romas stumbled upon herbs of high medicinal value. Owing to their nomadic lifestyle and closeness with nature, they were quick to grasp the significance of this finding. They soon established an organized culture around the production and business of these medicinal herbs.
When I reached the University at Fonza, where I spent most of my stay, I was welcomed and accommodated with warmth and hospitality. On a local holiday, I took a keke (a tri-wheeled car) and asked to be dropped at Runia, an area inhabited by one of the most populous clans in the city. A man I had met at the university, Lel, was going to show me around the community area. Historically, bands of Romas, each being an extended family, which arrived at the island later, are known to have populated wards of the city’s primary settlement in Fonza. The keke dropped me off at a typical residential area — a neatly laid out lattice of compact one or two storeyed houses connected by narrow lanes. I saw at the crossroads, a colossal statue of Saint Sarah, the primary Roma deity and a mythical embodiment of the sea. One often comes across religious symbolism embedded in the structural design; statues of multifarious Roma Gods and legendary chieftains of Tsura’s first settlers are common. These serve to celebrate the Roma identity and act as reminders of their ethnic solidarity. This deeply revered value of collectivism is also manifested in their way of living. The houses in front of me had either no separating walls or only low-set wooden fences. Neighbours in Fonza are usually connected by blood, even if indirectly and they intermingle frequently. People were huddled in groups conversing and performing routine tasks together. Some children ran around freely, even into others’ courtyards. I rented a cycle, the easiest way to traverse these wards.
I was visiting Lel with the objective of understanding the functioning of a family, the principal unit of Roma life. His house looked just like all others I’d seen on the way: a small two-storeyed building with a veranda overlooking the street. At the porch, sat the womenfolk dressed in ankle-length skirts and loose blouses, teaching children mathematics and logic. They smiled nervously at me as I entered and asked their sons to play music to entertain me. They offered me a specially cooked meal of grilled salmon with beans and pogacha (Roma bread); sea food constitutes the Roma staple diet. At the heart of the house, in a rocking chair made of cane, sat an elder woman. Veneration of elders is a cultural norm and consequently, the oldest generation in a family heads the household. The family head, regardless of gender, usually occupies the house’s centre-space. Surrounding this enclosure are doors to various rooms. Lel’s house had a washroom inside and one outside the room which is particularly for menstruating women. The Romas emphasise cleanliness, literally and figuratively. They have retained some beliefs based on purity and impurity in their everyday norms. Insistence on virginity before marriage and fidelity after it especially for women is another such method to prevent spiritual pollution. Women are also seen as keepers of the family’s honour; they are to dress modestly in front of elders. These disproportionate gender-based standards may suggest a slight patriarchal tendency, but they stand in contrast to the progressive gender dynamic prevalent in the community. The importance given to women’s education, career and perspective ascertains this.
Lel invited me to join his family at the public grounds to celebrate the annual Camargue festival on the 11th of October. Crowds were larger than any I had seen through my six months in the island. Thousands of Romas dressed elaborately carried a well-adorned statue of Saint Sarah to the grounds and then toward the sea, where she is known to have come from, in a procession. I joined the parade of dance, music and merriment. They blessed the statue with the waters and brought her back to her abode at the temple. Following this, ceremonial animal sacrifices were officiated by the temple’s religious pastor and the entire Senate presided over the function. Legend goes that Saint Sarah arrived on earth to kill a monster named Ahiura who had been terrorising the Roma people. Some draw a parallel to the worship of Hindu Goddess Durga who killed the evil Mahishasura. Roma life is filled with celebrations and totems of gypsy identity, culture and pride. The Rali festival is an agrarian one and is celebrated with huge splendour to exult the season of crop abundance. People pray to the soil and follow it with dance and music. Traditional music encompasses percussion instruments like kuru, udukila, firu, thozha, santoor and bamboo flutes. Some people carry a wooden structure mounted on their heads while performing dances in multiple semi-circles. Marriage ceremonies are equally festive; a carnival with an extravagant feast is usually arranged in open spaces. Open spaces for communal gatherings and festivities are common and included in the city’s design. Further, men celebrate the city’s historic warriors by ornamenting themselves, carrying heavy drums and shouting slogans in praise of the clan. Roma practices also carry an influence of their European associations, as seen in the mass prayers done to celebrate the virtuousness of Virgin Mary. As Romas came into Tsura in multiple waves, each group brought with it a distinct flavour of gypsy culture and a dialect of the common language. This diversity is demonstrated on many counts; for instance, some clans pray to specific ancestral Gods; some impart religious and cultural meanings to handmade material objects and pray to these talismans periodically; some worship pagan Gods. The openness provides freedom for people to practice their own rituals. This heterogeneous culture is knit together by rich threads of collective gypsy tradition. These events unite the Romas by promulgating cordiality between clans and a single collective gypsy identity.
On a serendipitous event through my endeavour to map the political situation and governance of the community, I got an appointment with a senator who was once a professor at the University himself. The Senate house is symbolically located on a plateau in the highland settlement, with only the nearby temple of Saint Sarah, the city’s main religious site, at a higher altitude. The elevation of the Senate House is representative of the importance and the power standing it holds in Tsura. The grand architecture of the structure seems like a design intended to glorify the Gypsy culture. The courtyard has statues of the founders of the Tsura, and other ancestral philosophers. The walls inside the Senate House don inscriptions of different teachings which guide the societal values and spiritual beliefs of Tsura. The senator pointed out to me that nine paintings in his office, from different pegs of time, narrated the story of the inception and history of the political system. The first three paintings depict the evolution of the Senate over the years. One of the paintings is of the chieftains of the first seven immigrant clans, worshipping Saint Sarah after laying the foundation stone of Senate House. Over the years, the senate has grown from seven to fifteen members, now consisting of ten men and five women. Senators are essentially elders of different groups/clans, who collectively act as guiding philosophers of the land of the Romas. Five seats of the senate have been reserved for the representation of minorities or smaller groups/clans. The senate has two auxiliaries: the Executive Council which administers the policy implementation and grassroots functioning of various departments; and the Army which takes care of law and order, and local justice. Juxtaposing snapshots of the political and social situation of different time periods, it is evident that Romas respect and trust their elders immensely and vice-versa. Though senates in most political systems have perished, Tsura’s senate has thrived as its members take on responsibilities with utmost sincerity, leading to a sturdy and efficient government.
I found out from a construction worker I conversed with that Tsura’s inhabitants are not limited to the Romani community; African immigrants, who are mostly construction labourers, live in slum-like settlements in fringe areas of the island. Romas, after years of threats of forcible extinction, developed an intense xenophobia that has diluted, but persisted to the modern day. My inquiries disclosed that in order to protect Roma’s territorial ownership, the law strictly disallows foreigners from owning land or property. Consequently, African settlers live on rented land in the island’s periphery in shacks erected using makeshift resources. The area is congested with cramped constructions to house the overflowing immigrant population. The structures are unstable and easily affected by weather changes. These are mostly one roomed shelter arrangements with limited sanitation and electricity facilities. The design is intended to take least space but contain maximum people. Nevertheless, this spatial divide is only an outcome of a self-defensive survival instinct of the Romas, not one of a power hierarchy. Romas treat immigrants in a humane and indiscriminate manner. State run organizations like the schools, university and hospitals are equally accessible to immigrants. In an otherwise undivided society, this ethnic difference has led to the conception of the self and the other, and in a way strengthening the island’s foremost value: Roma unity and equality. The discrimination and marginalization they were subject to has led to solidification of Roma togetherness. They stand united against any potential threat to their community. They however strive to differ from their European dominators by accepting and tolerating minorities and foreigners while defending themselves. The life that people of Tsura have built over these years after being ostracised and ousted by various societies is a stark example of the strength of collectiveness and humanity. Their value system remains grounded despite their tragic experiences and their serene and colourful culture is stimulating and endearing. Roma life has sustained their traditional values and culture in the home they have built in this once-upon-a-time forsaken island.
My stay at Tsura ended with my research. I had never thought that this small island will change my life or even my perspective. Today is my last day and I am going to miss this beautiful place until I return. The small and yet profound things of this community will remain with me and my diary not just as another tale, but as a meaningful experience in life.