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Group of Thugs ca. 1894
|Named after||Hindi word for thief|
|Founding location||Central India|
|Years active||At least 450 years|
|Criminal activities||Murder, robbery|
The Thugs travelled in groups across India for six hundred years. Although the Thugs traced their origin to seven Muslim tribes, Hindus appear to have been associated with them at an early period.
They were first mentioned in Ẓiyāʾ-ud-Dīn Baranī's History of Fīrūz Shāh dated around 1356. In the 1830s they were targeted for eradication by William Bentinck and his chief captain William Henry Sleeman. They were seemingly destroyed by this effort.
The Thugs would join travelers and gain their confidence. This would allow them to then surprise and strangle their victims by pulling a handkerchief or noose tight around their necks. They would then rob their victims of valuables and bury their bodies. This led them to also be called Phansigar (English: using a noose), a term more commonly used in southern India.
The term Thuggee is derived from Hindi word ठग, or ṭhag, which means "thief". Related words are the verb thugna, "to deceive", from Sanskrit स्थग sthaga "cunning, sly, fraudulent", from स्थगति sthagati "he conceals". This term for a particular kind of murder and robbery of travellers is popular in South Asia and particularly in India.
The story of Thuggee was popularised by books such as Philip Meadows Taylor's novel Confessions of a Thug, 1839, leading to the word "thug" entering the English language. In his 1897 travelogue Following the Equator Mark Twain devotes two chapters to the Thugs and how they operated.
The earliest currently known recorded mention of the Thugs as a special band or fraternity, rather than as ordinary thieves, is found in the following passage of 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,[disambiguation needed] 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, in what would now be termed a criminal underclass. The leaders of long-established Thug groups tended to come from these hereditary lines, as the gang developed into a criminal 'tribe'. Other men would get to know a Thug band and would hope to be recruited, in the way that one might aspire to join an elite regiment or university: they were the best operators in "the business" and, like a regiment or college fraternity, once in the group, there was a camaraderie of numbers and shared experience. The robbery became less a question of solving problems of poverty and more a profession, like soldiering.
Sometimes the young children of the travellers would be spared and groomed to become Thugs themselves, as the presence of 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.
Murdan Khan and gang from Lucknow (1840)
Modes of Operation
The modus operandi was to join a caravan and become accepted as bona-fide travellers themselves. The Thugs would need to delay any attack until their fellow travellers had dropped the initial wariness of the newcomers and had been lulled into a false sense of security, gaining their trust. Once the travellers had allowed the Thugs to join them and disperse amongst them - a task which might sometimes, depending on the size of the target group, require accompaniment for hundreds of miles - the Thugs would wait for a suitable place and time before killing and robbing them.
There were obviously variations on this theme. When tackling a large group, a Thuggee band might disperse along a route and join a group in stages, concealing their acquaintanceship, such that they could come to outnumber their intended victims by small, non-threatening increments. If the travellers had doubts about any one party, they might confide their worries to another party of the same Thuggee band. The trusted band would thus be the best placed to deal with these members of the caravan at the appropriate time, but might also be able to advise their colleagues to 'back off' or otherwise modify their behavior, to allay suspicion.
The killing place would need to be remote from local observers and suitable to prevent escape (e.g., backed against a river). Thugs tended to develop favored places of execution, called beles. They knew the geography of these places well—better than their victims. They needed to, if they were to anticipate the likely escape routes and hiding-places of the quicker-witted and more determined of the travellers.
The timing might be at night or during a rest-break, when the travellers would be busy with chores and when the background cries and noise would mask any sounds of alarm. A quick and quiet method, which left no stains and required no special weapons, was strangulation. This method is particularly associated with Thuggee and led to the Thugs also being referred to as the Phansigars, or "noose-operators", and simply as "stranglers" by British troops. Usually two or three Thugs would strangle one traveller. The Thugs would then need to dispose of the bodies: they might bury them or might throw them into a nearby well.
The leader of a gang was called the 'Jemadar'. (This is an ordinary Indian word, and was formerly one rank of junior commissioned officer in several armies in the subcontinent. However, since it also came to be used for sweepers (scavengers), that rank was renamed Naib Subedar. 'Naib' is Arabic for 'Deputy or Authorized Representative' and 'Subedar' is an Indian word for a rank of junior military officer; the two words together means 'Official Authority Agent'.)
As with modern criminal gangs, each member of the group had his own function: the equivalent of the 'hit-man,' 'the lookout,' and the 'getaway driver' would be those Thugs tasked with luring travellers with charming words or acting as guardian to prevent escape of victims while the killing took place.
They usually killed their victims in darkness while the Thugs made music or noise to escape discovery. If burying bodies close to a well-travelled trade-route, they would need to disguise the 'earthworks' of their graveyard as a camp-site, tamping down the covering mounds and leaving some items of rubbish or remnants of a fire to 'explain' the disturbances and obscure the burials.
One reason given for the Thuggee success in avoiding detection and capture so often and over such long periods of time is a self-discipline and restraint in avoiding groups of travellers on shorter journeys, even if they seemed laden with suitable plunder. Choosing only travellers far from home gave more time until the alarm was raised and the distance made it less likely that colleagues would follow on to investigate the disappearances. Another reason given is the high degree of teamwork and co-ordination both during the infiltration phase and at the moment of attack.
The garotte is often depicted as the common weapon of the Thuggee. It is sometimes described as a Rumāl (head covering or kerchief), or translated as "yellow scarf". "Yellow" in this case may refer to a natural cream or khaki colour rather than bright yellow.
Most Indian males in Central India or Hindustan would have a puggaree or head-scarf, worn either as a turban or worn around a kullah and draped to protect the back of the neck. Types of scarves were also worn as cummerbunds, in place of a belt. Any of these items could have served as strangling ligatures. Behram, the most prolific killer among the Thuggee is known to have improvised his method of strangulation by sewing a large medallion into his cummerbund to possibly add weight to the cloth. The medallion he used has been identified as the Canova Medallion.
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 2,000,000 deaths, while British historian Mike Dash states that they killed 50,000 persons in total over an estimated 150 years. According to other estimates the Thugs murdered 1 million people.
Yearly figures for the early 19th century are better documented, but even they are inaccurate estimates. For example, gang leader Behram has often been considered the world's most prolific serial killer, blamed for 931 killings between 1790 and 1830. Reference to contemporary manuscript sources, however, shows that Behram actually gave inconsistent statements regarding the number of murders he had committed.
While he did state that he had "been present at" 931 killings committed by his gang of 25 to 50 men, elsewhere he admitted that he had personally strangled around 125 people. Having turned King's Evidence and informing on his former companions, Behram never stood trial for any of the killings attributed to him, the total of which must thus remain a matter of dispute.
The Thuggee was suppressed by the British rulers of India in the 1830s. The arrival of the British and their development of a methodology to tackle crime meant the techniques of the Thugs had met their match. Suddenly, the mysterious disappearances were mysteries no longer and it became clear how even large caravans could be infiltrated by apparently small groups, that were in fact acting in concert. Once the techniques were known to all travellers, the element of surprise was gone and the attacks became botched, until the hunters became the hunted.
Reasons for success included:
The initiative of suppression was due largely to the efforts of the civil servant William Sleeman, who captured "Feringhea" (also called Syeed Amir Ali, on whom the novel Confessions of a Thug is based) and got him to turn King's evidence. He took Sleeman to a grave with a hundred bodies, told him the circumstances of the killings, and named the Thugs who had done it.
After initial investigations confirmed what Feringhea had said, Sleeman started an extensive campaign involving profiling and intelligence. A police organisation known as the Thuggee and Dacoity Department was established within the Government of India, with William Sleeman appointed Superintendent of the department in 1835. Thousands of men were either put in prison, executed, or expelled from British India.
The campaign was heavily based on informants recruited from captured Thugs who were offered protection on the condition that they told everything that they knew. By the 1870s, the Thug cult was extinct, but it led to the promulgation of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Although it was repealed upon independence of India, the concept of criminal tribes and criminal castes is still present in India. The Department remained in existence until 1904, when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID).
The discovery of the Thuggee was one of the main reasons why the Criminal Tribes Act was created. Of a Government Report made in 1839 by Major Sleeman of the Indian Service, Mark Twain, in Following the Equator, wrote:
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 organization 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 immortalize 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.
Thuggee trace their origin to the battle of Kali against Raktabija; however, their foundation myth departs from Brahminical versions of the Puranas. Thuggee consider themselves to be children of Kali, created out of her sweat. This particular point is also one of the clear disconnects in the story built on the Thuggees. While only Hindus worship Kali, a large number of the Thuggees captured and convicted by the British were Muslims.
According to some sources,[which?] especially old colonial sources, Thuggee believed they had a positive role, saving humans' lives. Without Thuggee's sacred service, Kali might destroy all the human kind:
In contrast, Dash states that they did not have a religious motive to kill and that the colonial sources were wrong and prejudiced in that respect.
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In her book The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India (2002), Martine van Wœrkens suggests that evidence for the existence of a Thuggee cult in the 19th century was in part the product of "colonial imaginings"—British fear of the little-known interior of India and limited understanding of the religious and social practices of its inhabitants. For a comparison, see Juggernaut and the Black Hole of Calcutta.
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 that was different from highwaymen, such as dacoits. To prove his point Dash refers to the excavated corpses in graves, of which the hidden locations were revealed to Sleeman's team by Thug informants. In addition, Dash treats the extensive and thorough documentation that Sleeman made. Dash rejects the colonial emphasis on the religious motivation for robbing, but instead asserts that monetary gain was the main motivation for Thuggee and that men sometimes became Thugs due to extreme poverty. He further asserts that the Thugs were highly superstitious and that they worshipped the Hindu goddess Kali, but that their faith was not very different from their contemporary non-Thugs. He admits, though, that the Thugs had certain group-specific superstitions and rituals.
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