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Religion among the Roma
26-02-2000

Savoro pes prejal, cha o Del achhel.
Everything passes, only God lasts.
Romani proverb

The majority of Czech Roma are of the Roman Catholic faith. It is said of the Roma that their real faith is an interesting symbiosis of the religion of the majority society and their own "superstitions", which they brought with them from India. This superficial opinion on Romani faith is confirmed by even the oldest historical records. In a document from 1350, a German traveller who encountered Roma on his trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem wrote that "with Greeks they are Greeks, with Saracens they are Saracens". In the chroicles of Saxonius from 1520 it is written that "they declare no religion like dogs."

But the Roma always were and still frequently are devoted to God, and they understand religion in a far wider sense of the word than Christians. Religion and faith for them were a way of life, much like keeping dharma is for people in India, in that it determines how a person should act their whole lives. Roma call this set of requirements and prohibitions romipen - that which gives life order.

In the Romani language, God is "o Del" and Roma communicate with him differently than Christians. Mostly they address him in the form of prayers and eulogies. The firm Roma belief in a definite higher power that transcends individuals is also demonstrated by the amount of impersonal constructions in their language. Roma say, for example "it hurts my leg" instead of "my leg hurts".

The Roma believe that a person's soul survives them and exists even after the body leaves this world. This can be seen in their extremely strong traditional belief in the souls of dead ancestors - mule - which the Roma consider intermediaries with God. According to their beliefs, the souls of the dead come back to the living, the good ones to visit their relatives and offer advice, the bad ones to make trouble (during the birth of children for example).

Considering that the majority of Roma are religious, they have a desire to worship their own god. Their only "saint" to date is Kali Sara - Black Sara, who they have revered and celebrated for more than a century...

Visit Les Saintes-Maries-de-la MerEvery year with iron regularity in the last third of May, Roma gather in the French town of "Les Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer", known to the locals as simply "Les Saintes" ("The Saints"). To this land, "Camargue" (the place where the land ends and the sea begins), come rich and poor, famous and unknown, young and those going gray, from East and West, to honour the memory of "Saint Sarah".

In Romani communities, from ancient times there dominated a propensity for worshipping the cult of women. To this day no one knows if this honouring of "Black Sara" is a cause or result of this. Just as many Roma, in spite of taking part in the annual ceremonial rite, have no idea about the legend surrounding the mysterious Sarah...

The historical sources support the existence of two Sarahs: one of the Catholic Church, the second Romani. The first was the servant of the two Marys: Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe, who were expelled from the Holy Land. Sarah accompanied them and they landed together in the village of Les Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer. This account has come down from the time of the reign of King Rene (1448). The Catholic Sarah didn't have a right to canonization and so remains in the crypt, since she was expelled from the church. Romani Sarah is supposed to have lived on the banks of the River Rhone with her tribe and taken on with the three Marys after their landing. Franze de Ville, in the book "Traditions of the Roma in Belgium", describes the event this way:

"One of our people who had the first epiphany was Sara-la-Kali. She came from a noble line and ruled her kin on the bank of the Rhone. Thanks to this mysterious revelation, she knew many secrets. By the River Rhone tribes worked with metals and then traded with them. Roma at that time had polytheistic beliefs (they followed several deities) and once a year they took part in a procession with a statue of Ischtari (Astarte) on their shoulders. They walked into the sea with it hoping for benediction. One dat Sara-la-Kali had a vision. She saw three holy women calling desperately for help. So Sarah didn't hesitate and went to meet them in a small boat. But the sea was so tempestuous that Sarah almost lost her own life. Finally, in desperation, not knowing which direction was best, she threw her dress into the waves. And lo and behold, by some miracle, it served as a raft and helped her to convey the three Marys to shore. The holy women baptized Sara as a reward and recommended the gospel to her."

It's worth thinking about, why the Roma really chose Sara? Who knows? Maybe because she's called the "Egyptian". Perhaps for her historically "overshadowed role". If we stick with Romani tradition, according to which Sara originated with their people and was the ruler of her tribe; so it was possible to identify her with the Black Virgin. The name Kali, which the Roma gave her, translates in Romanes as a conjunction of the meaning of the words for 'black' and 'Romani woman'. This is raised by the name Sarah, which for the Church symbolizes the wife of Abraham.

The first written testimony of the participation of Roma at the festivities in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was by Frederic Mistral. In his "Memoirs and Reports" of 1906, he gives his account of his visit to Camargue in 1855: The church was packed with people from Languedoc, with women from the Arles country and sick Roma. After all, they were really the ones who lit the biggest candles, though only at the altar of Sara, who (according to their beliefs) came from their people.

"The Daily" (news), regularly published by the parish priests of Les Saintes from 1861 to 1939 and preserved at the parish, doesn't provide too much information either. But with a little diligence we can find things such as this:

"The Roma have now come. They are taking advantage of their age-old right to gather in the crypt of Saint Sarah, their legendary patron. They are huddled under the altar, curly-haired, with unctuous lips, fingering their rosaries, covering with kisses the hem of St. Sara's skirt, beads of sweat falling onto the many burning candles. Day and night they sing religious songs, They mumble some kind of prayers that nobody understands in a mysterious language. It is a unique spectacle. The Roma enrich the holy pilgrimmage in Les Saintes by their magnificent multi-faceted originality.

The Romani clut honouring Sara is very interesting and is one in which gadje can take part (don't forget that real communication between the Roma and others didn't occur until after the Second World War, and before that time they had to keep their distance, and then maybe they even wanted to). Until 1912, only Roma had the right to go into the crypt. There they spent the entire night among their own and this vigil was enveloped in mystery, especially in the eyes of the parish priest from Les Saintes. He knew that the crypt was soaked with water and that it hid three sections: on the left by the entrance an ancient pagan shrine, in the middle a Christian shrine from the third century and on the right the statue of Sarah. This however seemed to be from the 18th century.

Black SaraThose who come to Sara pay their respects in two ritual acts (these are upheld and respected to this day by all the Roma who meet in France every year): the first is the placing and removing their hands from her skirts. Women in particular carefully stroke the statue and kiss the tails of her pleated skirts (Sarah never has only one skirt on her, the Romani women are always bringing them as a gift to her). They then put down next to her the things they've brought: handkerchiefs, silk undergarments, and skirts. Finally, items that belong to lost or ill people are presented to Sara in the hopes that the lost are found and the sick healed. This entire ritual is evidently not original, and has been observed among the Dravidians in northern India. They believe that a sick person's clothes or things are imbued with pain and disease and that the sufferer will recover if these things come into contact with a sacred tree.

The second part of the annual Romani pilgrimmage is inherent in the procession to the sea and the symbolic submersion in it, although the Church didn't recognize this ceremony until 1935. The procession and the ocean connect Sarah with all the cults of great fertility goddesses - the magic of submersion induced rain, or at least it should. Understandably, no one today is going to France to call for rain. Then why? Well, partly to soak up the atmosphere, to at least once (even if the trend is more often than not to the contrary, people coming regularly, many even for decades to pay their respects to Sarah) to see and touch "their" goddess. It has become a matter of course that just on the 24th and 25th of May parents are having their children baptized in the church before Kali Sarah. Young couples come from all over the world to say their vows in front of Sarah. When the time comes, the men load Sarah on a horse-drawn wagon (sometimes two Sarahs are taken, one Catholic and the second Romani) and the endless procession sets off down the streets. It approaches the sea and the tension mounts. First the carriage with Sarah goes into the sea. The moment the hem of her skirt touches the water, everyone else throws themselves in after her. They believe that the water that Sarah has just blessed will bring them health and luck.

Written for the magazine "Kavarna" by Jarmila Balazova.

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