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Group of Thugs around 1894
|Named after||Hindi word for deceit|
|Founding location||Central India|
|Years active||At least 450 years|
|Criminal activities||Murder, robbery|
Thuggee or tuggee (Hindi: Nepali ठग्गी ṭhaggī; Urdu: ٹھگ; Sanskrit: sthaga; Sindhi: ٺوڳي، ٺڳ; Kannada: ಠಕ್ಕ thakka) were the acts of Thugs, an organised gang of professional robbers and murderers. Thugs travelled in groups across the Indian sub-continent for six hundred years. They were first mentioned in Ẓiyā-ud-Dīn Baranī's History of Fīrūz Shāh, dated around 1356. During the 1830s, the Thugs were targeted for eradication by Governor-General of India William Bentinck and his chief captain, William Henry Sleeman. Thugs were apparently destroyed by this effort.
To take advantage of their victims, the Thugs would join travellers and gain their confidence; this would allow them to surprise and strangle the travellers with a handkerchief or noose. They would then rob and bury their victims. This led to the Thugs being called Phansigar (English: using a noose), a term more commonly used in southern India. The word "Thuggee" derives from the Hindi ठग (ṭhag), which means "deceiver". Related words are the verb thugna ("to deceive"), from the Sanskrit स्थग (sthaga "cunning, sly, fraudulent") and स्थगति (sthagati, "he conceals"). This term, describing the murder and robbery of travellers, is popular in South Asia and particularly India.
The earliest known reference to the Thugs as a band or fraternity, rather than ordinary thieves, is found in Ziau-d din Barni's History of Firoz Shah (written about 1356):
In the reign of that sultan [about 1290], some Thugs were taken in Delhi, and a man belonging to that fraternity was the means of about a thousand being captured. But not one of these did the sultan have killed. He gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the lower country, to the neighbourhood of Lakhnauti, where they were to be set free. The Thugs would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti and would not trouble the neighbourhood of Delhi any more.— Sir HM Elliot, History of India, iii. 141
Membership was sometimes passed from father to son, as part of a criminal underclass. The leadership of established Thug groups tended to be hereditary, as the group evolved into a criminal tribe. Other men would become acquainted with a Thug band and hope to be recruited, as Thugs were respected by the criminal community and had a camaraderie of numbers and shared experience. Robbery became less a question of solving problems associated with poverty and more a profession, like being a soldier.
Sometimes young children of travellers would be spared and groomed to become Thugs themselves, since children would help allay suspicion. A fourth way of becoming a Thug was by training with a guru (similar to an apprenticeship for a guild or profession), during which the candidate could be assessed for reliability, courage, discretion and discipline.
The Thugs' modus operandi was to join a caravan as fellow travellers, delaying their attack until the other travellers lost their initial wariness of the newcomers. Depending on the size of the target group, it might take hundreds of miles to reach a suitable place and time. There were variations on this method. When tackling a large group, a Thuggee band might disperse along a route and join a group in stages, concealing their acquaintanceship and eventually outnumbering their intended victims in small, non-threatening increments. If the travellers doubted any one party, they might confide their worries to another party of the Thuggee band; the trusted band would be best placed to deal with those members of the caravan at the appropriate time, or advise their colleagues to modify their behaviour to allay suspicion.
The killing place needed to be remote from local observers, with no escape (for example, a riverbank). Thugs had favoured places of execution, known as beles, and knew their geography better than their victims did. Attacks were conducted at night or during a rest break, when travellers would be busy with chores and background noises would mask any sounds of alarm. A quick, quiet method, leaving no stains and requiring no specialised weapon, was strangulation. This method, associated with Thuggee, led to the Thugs being called phansigars ("noose-operators") or "stranglers" by British troops. Usually two or three Thugs would strangle one traveller; they then needed to dispose of the bodies, either burying them or throwing them into a well. The leader of a Thugee gang was known as a jemadar.
The garrote is often depicted as a weapon of the Thuggee. It is sometimes described as a rumāl (head covering or kerchief), translated as "yellow scarf"; "yellow", in this case, may refer to a natural cream or khaki colour rather than bright yellow.
Estimates of the total number of victims vary widely, since no reliable source confirms the length of the Thugs' existence. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Thuggee cult was responsible for approximately two million deaths; British historian Mike Dash said that they killed a total of 50,000 people over an estimated 150 years. Political scientist David C. Rapoport estimated that 500,000 people were killed by the Thugs, making them the most destructive terrorist group in history. According to other estimates, they murdered one million people.
The Thugs were suppressed by the British rulers of India during the 1830s. The initiative was due largely to the efforts of civil servant William Henry Sleeman, who captured "Feringhea" (also known as Syeed Amir Ali, on whom the novel Confessions of a Thug is based) and persuaded him to turn King's evidence. Feringhea brought Sleeman to a grave with a hundred bodies, told him the circumstances of the murders and named the Thugs who had committed them.
After initial investigations confirmed what Feringhea had said, Sleeman began an extensive campaign using profiling and intelligence. The government of India established the Thuggee and Dacoity Department in 1835, with Sleeman its first superintendent. Thousands of men were imprisoned, executed or expelled from British India.
The campaign relied on captured Thugs who became informants. These informants were offered protection on the condition that they told everything that they knew. By the 1870s the Thug cult was extinct, but the history of Thuggee led to the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) of 1871. Although the CTA was repealed at Indian independence, tribes considered criminal still exist in India. The Thuggee and Dacoity Department remained in existence until 1904, when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID).
There is one very striking thing which I wish to call attention to. You have surmised from the listed callings followed by the victims of the Thugs that nobody could travel the Indian roads unprotected and live to get through; that the Thugs respected no quality, no vocation, no religion, nobody; that they killed every unarmed man that came in their way. That is wholly true—with one reservation. In all the long file of Thug confessions an English traveller is mentioned but once—and this is what the Thug says of the circumstance:
We do not know who he was; he flits across the page of this rusty old book and disappears in the obscurity beyond; but he is an impressive figure, moving through that valley of death serene and unafraid, clothed in the might of the English name.
We have now followed the big official book through, and we understand what Thuggee was, what a bloody terror it was, what a desolating scourge it was. In 1830 the English found this cancerous organisation embedded in the vitals of the empire, doing its devastating work in secrecy, and assisted, protected, sheltered, and hidden by innumerable confederates —big and little native chiefs, customs officers, village officials, and native police, all ready to lie for it, and the mass of the people, through fear, persistently pretending to know nothing about its doings; and this condition of things had existed for generations, and was formidable with the sanctions of age and old custom. If ever there was an unpromising task, if ever there was a hopeless task in the world, surely it was offered here—the task of conquering Thuggee. But that little handful of English officials in India set their sturdy and confident grip upon it, and ripped it out, root and branch! How modest do Captain Vallancey's words sound now, when we read them again, knowing what we know:
"The day that sees this far-spread evil completely eradicated from India, and known only in name, will greatly tend to immortalise British rule in the East."It would be hard to word a claim more modestly than that for this most noble work.— Chapter xlvi, conclusion
Although Thugs trace their origin to the battle of Kali against Raktabija, their foundation myth departs from Brahminical versions of the Puranas. Thugs considered themselves children of Kali (a Hindu goddess), created from her sweat. However, many Thugs who were captured and convicted by the British were Muslims.
According to colonial sources, Thugs believed they had a positive role in saving human lives. Without the Thugs' sacred service, Kali might destroy all humankind:
Martine van Woerkens has suggested that evidence for a Thug cult in the 19th century was partly the product of "colonial imaginings", arising from British fear of the little-known interior of India, as well as limited understanding of the religious and social practices of its inhabitants. Mike Dash, however, has pulled the debate the other way, as in Krishna Dutta's review of his book Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult:
"In recent years, the revisionist view that Thuggee was a British invention, a means to tighten their hold in the country, has been given credence in India, France and the US, but this well-researched book objectively questions that assertion."
In his book, Dash rejects scepticism about the existence of a secret network of groups with a modus operandi different from highwaymen. He cites excavated corpses in graves whose locations were revealed to Sleeman's team by Thug informants. Dash examines Sleeman's extensive, thorough documentation, rejecting the colonial emphasis on a religious motivation for banditry and asserting that monetary gain was the primary motivation for Thuggee and men became Thugs due to extreme poverty. According to Dash, the Thugs were highly superstitious; although they worshipped the Hindu goddess Kali, their faith was little different from that of contemporary non-Thugs. However, he notes that the Thugs had group-specific superstitions and rituals.
The Thugs were popularised by books such as Philip Meadows Taylor's 1839 novel, Confessions of a Thug, which introduced the word "thug" to the English language. Ameer Ali, the protagonist of Confessions of a Thug, was said to be based on Syeed Amir Ali. "Thuggee" and "Thug" should be pronounced "Tug-gee" and "Tug", with the "t" and the "h" separate (as in "hothouse"), and were so pronounced before "thug" and "thuggery" acquired their current English meanings.
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