From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Group of Thugs.gif
Group of Thugs around 1894
Named afterSanskrit word for concealment[2]
Founding locationCentral India and Bengal
Years activeAt least 450 years
TerritoryIndian subcontinent
Criminal activitiesMurder, robbery
RivalsBritish Raj

Thuggee (UK: /θʌˈɡ/, US: /ˈθʌɡi/; Hindi: ठग्गी ṭhaggī; Urdu: ٹھگ‎; Nepali: ठगी ṭhagī; Sanskrit: स्थग sthaga; Marathi: ठक; Odia: ଠକ thaka; Sindhi: ٺوڳي، ٺڳ‎; Kannada: ಠಕ್ಕ thakka; Bengali: ঠগি ṭhogī; Punjabi: ਠੱਗੀ ṭhagee ) refers to 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.[3] There were numerous tradition about their origin. One recorded by D. F. McLeod traced it to seven Muslim tribes formed from those who fled Delhi after murdering a physician. Another traced it to seven great Muslim families who fled after murdering a favoured slave of Akbar.[4] These original Muslim Thugs spread Thuggee amongst Rajputs, Hindus, Lodhis and Ahirs.[5] According to other traditions by Thugs, they were Kanjars or descended from those who worked in the Mughal camps.[6][7] Others have blamed the rise of Thuggees on the disbanding of armies in employment of Indian rulers after the British conquest.[8]

The earliest authenticated mention of thugs appears in Ziyā-ud-Dīn Baranī's History of Fīrūz Shāh, dated around 1356.[9] The earliest recorded traditions of their origins date from 1760.[10] Thugs were a secret cult of both Hindus and Muslims which worshipped the goddess Kali. They operated as gangs of highway robbers, tricking and later strangling their victims.[11] Her worship by both Muslims and Hindus, was emphasised by the British.[12] They viewed Thuggee as nothing more than a ritual-murder by her worshippers.[13] Some other scholars instead have claimed Thuggee to be an invention of the British administration.[14]

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.[15] During the 1830s, the thugs were targeted for eradication by the Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck, and his chief captain, William Henry Sleeman.

The English language word "thug" traces its roots to the Hindi ठग (ṭhag), which means "swindler" or "deceiver". Related words are the verb thugna ("to deceive"), from the Sanskrit स्थग (sthaga "cunning, sly, fraudulent") and स्थगति (sthagati, "he conceals").[16] This term, describing the murder and robbery of travellers, is popular in the northern parts of Indian subcontinent and particularly India.


The Thuggee units would resemble the physical appearance of travellers. Initially they wore Turbans and carried with themselves some kinds of baggage.

Their attire as travellers would deceive peasants and royalty alike. They were known for their ability to decieve, persons of any ethnic group both Muslims and Hindus alike.

The Thuggee were armed with concealed weapons such as a noose. It is possible that they held to themselves various types of blades; it is possible that their iconic ceremonial knives identified with the cult resembled a Kukri.

The Thuggee imitated the "customs and traditions" of the men and women who travelled along the roads and the trade routes of the Indian subcontintent.

It is unclear if the Thuggee cult ever had strategic or political objectives in the regions where they operated.

Their modes of conduct however were not invincible they were quickly detected by the officers of the British Raj and punished for their crimes.


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).[9] He narrated an incident of the sultan Jalaluddin Khilji having 1,000 arrested thugs being sent to Lakhnauti or Gaur.:[17]

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

Surdas, in his allegorical couplet, mentioned robbers called "thags" who lured a victim while also killing and looting his property. The Janamsakhis used the term thag to refer to a robber who used to lure pilgrims. Jean de Thévenot in his account referred to a band of robbers who used a "certain Slip with a running noose" to strangle their victims. John Fryer also mentions a similar method of strangling used by robbers from Surat who he saw being given capital punishment by the Mughals in 1675. He mentioned that three of them were relatives, which Kim Wagner notices is similar to the Thugs who were thought to have engaged in this as a family profession. A decree issued by Aurangzeb in 1672 refers to a similar method and uses the term "Phansigar".[18]

Two drawings of an older, bearded man
Guru Multhoo Byragee Jogee, a native of Ajmere aged 90, in jail (1840)
Sketch of three standing men, of different ages
Murdan Khan and gang from Lucknow (1840)

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. In one cluster of Thuggee groups, leadership was traced along family lines for eight generations.[19] 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.

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.[19] Despite the hereditary origin of many Thugs, the actual practice of strangulation was taught not by fathers to their sons but rather by experienced members who specialized in such training. These men were highly regarded, and after training a young Thug would be entitled to a portion of his spoils in perpetuity as a pension for his old age.[19]

Modus operandi[edit]

See caption
Watercolour (1837) by unknown artist of three Thugs strangling a traveller; one holds his feet, another his hands and a third tightens the ligature around his neck. Created in Lucknow, based on descriptions from imprisoned Thug leaders (Dash, 2005)
See caption
Sketch by the same artist of a group of Thugs stabbing the eyes of murdered travellers before throwing the bodies into a well.

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 leader of a Thuggee gang was known as a jemadar, a term borrowed from an Indian military rank roughly comparable to a captain or lieutenant.[19]

There were numerous Thug taboos about who could not be selected as victims, though how strictly these rules were followed could vary from group to group and any murder could potentially be rationalized depending on the circumstances.[19] Women were prohibited as victims, as were those afflicted with leprosy or other obvious physical ailments and disabilities. Fakirs (religious ascetics) were also prohibited, along with those of the Sikh faith. Certain professions were prohibited, including elephant drivers, sellers or carriers of oil, and those accompanied by cattle (an animal sacred to Hindus). When Thugs were captured or exposed, they often blamed their misfortune on violation of one of these taboos.

Thugs usually operated in small groups, but occasionally met in larger gatherings. In 1884, seven men well-armed with swords and matchlocks, bearing a treasure worth 4,500 rupees, passed by a hidden encampment of two hundred Thugs.[20][21] The Thugs followed them unobserved for 7 miles, then rushed upon them and killed them all. While the Thugs were doing so, a tanner approached, "and to prevent him giving the alarm they put him to death also, and made off with the treasure, leaving the bodies unburied."[21]

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. They were careful to kill those who were far from home, and thus unlikely to be missed for weeks or months. 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 accost one traveller: one Thug strangling the victims, while the others held the victim's limbs or torso to prevent their resistance. They then needed to dispose of the bodies, either burying them or throwing them into a well.[19] The victims joints were often broken, and/or the major tendons severed, to allow greater flexibility in hiding the corpses in confined areas.[19] Additionally, the victim was often stabbed in the eyes following the strangulation—a practice that Thugs believed was introduced after some victims survived being strangled and buried in shallow graves.[19]

The garrote is often depicted as a weapon of the Thuggee.[22][23] Early references to Thugs reported they committed their strangulation murders with nooses of rope or catgut, but later they adopted the use of a length of cloth that could be used as a sash or scarf, and thus more easily concealed.[19] This cloth 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.

The Thug preference for strangulation might have originated in a quirk of the law under the Mughal Empire, which ruled most of India from the 1500s.[19] For a murderer to be sentenced to death, he or she must have shed the blood of their victim. Those who murdered but did not shed blood might face imprisonment, hard labor and paying a penalty—but they would not risk execution.

A poison called datura, derived from a plant in the Nightshade family, was sometimes used by Thugs to induce drowsiness or stupefaction, making strangulation easier.[19]

The "River Thugs" preyed upon people including Hindu pilgrims travelling using the Ganga river and became mostly active during the winter like their compatriots from Murnae, Bundelkhand and Awadh. Their dialect of Ramasee differed from the one used by their compatriots on land and used boats taken on lease from their builders or from a jemadar called Khuruck Baboo. Sleeman states that they tapped three times to give the signal to murder which they always committed during the day. To avoid detection of a corpse, they broke its back and threw it in the river to be eaten by crocodiles and only looted money or jewels.[24]

Death toll[edit]

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.[25] According to other estimates, they murdered one million people.[26]

British suppression[edit]

Portrait of a middle-aged man in uniform
William Henry Sleeman, superintendent of the Thuggee and Dacoity Department

After a dispute developed between the zamindar Tejun and the Thug Ghasee Ram in 1812, the latter took refuge with his family under another landlord called Laljee. Tejun in turn revealed the thugs of Sindouse to Nathaniel Halhed.[27] Thomas Perry, the magistrate of Etawah, assembled some soldiers of the East India Company under the command of Halheld in 1812 to suppress the Thugs.[28] Laljee and his forces including over 100 Thugs were defeated, with the village of Murnae, a headquarter of the Thugs, destroyed and burnt by the Company soldiers.[29] Laljee fled to Rampura and the southern banks of Sindh River but was caught by the Marathas who turned him over to the Company.[30][31]

The Thugs were suppressed by the British rulers of India during the 1830s.[19] Earlier, both native and British rulers had been aware of the Thugs and their practices. But local rulers often tolerated Thugs in exchange for bribes and agreements to accost only those traveling through given regions while not slaying permanent residents. A few British leaders had been aware of robber gangs who murdered by strangulation from about 1810, but they were unaware of the vast scope of the problem. Thuggee were occasionally identified and punished, most commonly when captured with distinctive jewelry or other valuables they could not account for, but they were rarely pursued or sought out by authorities.

The initiative to shatter the Thugs was due largely to the efforts of civil servant William Henry Sleeman (1788-1856), who had joined the English military in 1809 and was a member of the civil service by 1820. Thuggee activity in the late 1700s and early 1800s became particularly brazen, due to multiple factors.[19] Between the breakdown of the Mughal Empire in the early 1700s and the subsequent expansion of British forces inland from the coastal ports, there was a power vacuum which allowed the Thugs to be more open and aggressive in their crimes. The introduction of the highly profitable opium industry led to greater wealth, and thus to more targets for the Thugs. An influx of younger Thugs were less willing to follow the traditional rules laid down by elders, thereby attracting more attention. Sepoys, the Indians hired as soldiers by the British, were also a common target for Thugs, as they were paid in large amounts of cash and often traveled long distances alone. To reduce the risk to Sepoys, the British began issuing salary in the form of bank cheques.[19]

British authorities had occasionally captured and prosecuted Thugs, circulating information about these cases in newsletters or the journal Asiatick Researches of The Asiatic Society. However, Sleeman seems to have been the first to realize that information obtained from one group of stranglers might be used to track and identify other thugs in a different district. His first major breakthrough was the capture of "Feringhea" (also known as Syeed Amir Ali, Khuda Buksh, Deahuct Undun and Daviga Persaud[11]), who was persuaded to turn King's evidence. (Feringhea's story was the basis of the successful 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug). Feringhea brought Sleeman to a mass grave with a hundred bodies, told him the circumstances of the murders and named the Thugs who had committed them.[32]

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. (Dacoity was a type of organized banditry, distinguished from Thugs most notably by its open practice and due to the fact that murder was not an intrinsic element of their modus operandi.) Sleeman developed elaborate intelligence techniques that pre-dated similar methods in Europe and the US by decades.[19] He maintained vast, cross-referenced files on Thugs, including their aliases, associates, hometowns, travel routes, methods and locations of concealing bodies, and other important information. Sleeman's tactics were copied throughout British India, resulting in thousands of men being imprisoned, executed or expelled.[19]

All of the accused were given a prisoner number against which their name was added, while their residence, fellow Thugs and every criminal act they were blamed for was also noted down. The names of many of the Thugs was similar. They didn't have last names, instead the naming convention was based on names of their tribes, castes and the job assigned to them as part of a gang. The Thugs adopted many aliases, which was made more difficult due to both Muslim and Hindu thugs often posing as members of the other religion. Per the Thug Ghulam Hussain, though Hindus and Muslims avoided eating together, such was not the case for drinking and smoking.[33][11]

The campaign relied heavily on captured Thugs who became informants. These informants were offered protection on the condition that they told everything that they knew. According to historian Mike Dash, who carefully examined the relevant documents in the UK archives, suspects were subject to bench trials before English judges. Though the trials were lacking by later standards (e.g., suspects were not allowed legal representation), they were conducted with care to protocols of the time. While most suspects were convicted, Dash notes that the courts genuinely seemed interested in finding the truth and rejected a minority of allegations due to mistaken identity or insufficient evidence. Even by later standards, Dash argues, the evidence of guilt for many Thugs was often overwhelming.[19]

The "River Thugs" due to their methods were able to evade the British authorities years after their compatriots on land were suppressed until being betrayed by a compatriot from Awadh. The forces under the command of Sleeman hunted them down in 1836.[34]


By the 1870s the Thug cult was essentially 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.[35][36] The Thuggee and Dacoity Department remained in existence until 1904, when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID).

In Following the Equator, Mark Twain wrote about an 1839 government report by William Henry Sleeman:[32]

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 traveler is mentioned but once—and this is what the Thug says of the circumstance:

"He was on his way from Mhow to Bombay. We studiously avoided him. He proceeded next morning with a number of travellers who had sought his protection, and they took the road to Baroda."

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

Thug view[edit]

Drawing of two men worshipping before a statue
The Thugs Worshipping Kalee, around 1850[37]

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.[38] However, many of the Thugs who were captured and convicted by the British were Muslims,[39] perhaps up to a third.[19]

According to colonial sources, Thugs believed they had a positive role in saving human lives. Without the Thugs' sacred service, Kali might destroy all mankind:

  • "It is God who kills, but Bhowanee has [a] name for it."
  • "God is all in all, for good and evil."
  • "God has appointed blood for [Bhowanee's] food, saying 'khoon tum khao': feed thou upon blood. In my opinion it is very bad, but what can she do, being ordered to subsist upon blood!"
  • "Bhowanee is happy and more so in proportion to the blood that is shed."[40]

The Muslim thugs while retaining their monotheistic faith, had functionalised Bhavani for Thuggee and she was syncretised as a spirit subordinate to Allah. A Muslim thug caught by Sleeman stated "In my heart, I take the name of God, when I strangle a man – saying "thou God and ruler!" "Alla, toomee Malik!" I do not pray to Bhowanee, but I worship her." Other Muslim thugs who had agreed to testify for Sleeman, stated they had assimilated Bhavani with Islamic prophet Muhammad's daughter Fatimah who killed Raktabija and started the practice of Thuggee.[41]

According to historian Mike Dash, the Thugs had no religious motive to kill. When religious elements were present among Thugs their beliefs, in principle, were little different from many others on the Indian subcontinent who attributed their success or failure to supernatural powers: "Indeed all of the Thugs's legends concerning the goddess [Kali] featured exactly the cautionary notes typical of folklore."[19]

Donald Friell McLeod who led the campaign against them in Rajputana Agency, recorded traditions of their origins. According to them, they were originally Muslims and were taught Thugee by the deity Devi or Bhavani. They then joined the Lodha people and migrated to Delhi where 84 tribes who were a part of all the criminal clans of India also became a part of the Thugs. A physician belonging to these 84 tribes gained prominence after curing a royal elephant and was murdered by other Thugs. A schism developed and they left Delhi, which in turn led to the origin of seven Muslim tribes. These tribes according to McLeod were named Bhyns, Bursot, Kachinee, Hutar, Kathur Gugra, Behleem and Ganoo. The thugs from Delhi according to him were separated into more than 12 "classes".[42]

The earliest recorded traditions about origins of Thugs dates to 1760. Based on genealogies recounted by some Thugs, historian Mike Dash stated that the start of Thuggee can be dated to the second half of 17th century. A general consensus among them was that they originated from Delhi. The thug Gholam Hossyn caught in early 1800s stated that his accomplices believed that Thugs had existed since the time of Alexander the Great. Another tradition from Thugs who lived in the early 1800s stated that they had lived in Delhi till the time of Akbar and consisted of seven great Muslim clans, though they had Hindu names, during the period. After one of them killed a favoured slave of Akbar, they left Delhi for other regions to avoid being targeted by the emperor.[4] A Brahmin thug interrogated by Sleeman referred to the Muslim thugs as "Kunjurs" or Kanjars though another Thug denied this.[6]

Kim Wagner asserts that we can analyse their traditions about events after their flight from Delhi "to a much greater advantage". A tradition recounted by a captive Thug stated that the Thugs had originally tried to settle in Agra and later in Akoopore in the Doab region. However, they had to flee to Himmutpur and later to Parihara after their kings started demanding more share of the loot. The original Muslim Thugs in turn helped spread Thuggee amongst other groups like the Brahmins, Rajputs, Hindus, the Lodhi people and the Ahir people.[43]

One thug stated that some of the ancestors of the Thugs were forced to disguise themselves as Khunjurs while fleeing Delhi but were high-caste Muslims. He however stated that their claimed descent may be wrong and that some of them may have in part originated from poor people who worked in Mughal army's camps. However unlike their claims of the Thug clans being closed to outsiders, people of all backgrounds were allowed to join by the early 19th century according to available evidence.[7]


The East India Company officers since the time of Thomas Perry, who was appointed to Etawah in 1811, came to understand that there were many Thug groups and they all viewed themselves to be different than the other group.[44]

The Thug sects were mostly identified based on their habitat, but also based on their professions. The sect called Jamuldahee was named so because its members lived along the Yamuna river, they hailed from the Doab and Awadh regions. Another stated origin is that their ancestor was the Thug Jumulud Deen. The Telinganie originated from Telengana, Arcottees from Arcot and Beraries from Berar. The Lodaha sect, mostly concentrated in Bihar, were caravaneers named after the lodha or load they carried and according to a Thug from the Doab, originated from the same ancestors of his clan. The Lodahas were prevalent in the region around Nepal in Bihar and Bengal during the tenure of Perry and originally hailed from Awadh which they left around 1700. A Deccan Thug stated that the "Hindu Thugs of Talghat", located around the Krishna River, didn't marry with the Telinganies whom they considered to be descendants of lower classes as a result of their professions.[45][46] The Telinganie sect were also disparagingly called Handeewuls (from handi) due to their eating habits.[47]

The Pungoo or Bungoo of Bengal derived their name from the region, with the Lodhees or Lodaha also present. The Motheea sect of Rampur-Purnia region was from a caste of weavers and their name derived from the practice of giving "handful" (muhti) of the spoils to the head. In the Uttar Pradesh the sects were: the Korkureeas from Kohrur, Agureeas of Agra, Jumaldahees, Lodhees and Tundals. The Multaneea were from Multan. In Madhya Pradesh the sects were: Bangureeas or Banjaras, Balheems or Bulheems, Khokhureeas and Soopurreeas of Sheopur. In modern Rajasthan, the sects were Guguras whose name derives from river Ghaggar and Sooseeas who were part of the Dhanuk clan. The Dhoulanee sect existed in modern-day Maharashtra. The Duckunies of Deccan were from Munirabad and Kurnaketies from Carnatic region. Another sect was Kathurs whose name derives from a bowl called kathota, based on a tradition of a man who held it during celebrations by Thugs. The Qulundera sect's name was derived from the Muslim saints called qalandar. There were also Jogee thugs who were divided into twelve sub-groups.[48]

According to Feringheea, the Brahmins of Tehngoor village of Parihar were taught the Thuggee after they accompanied the kings of Meos to Delhi and later helped in spreading it in the region around Murnae. He also states that two of his ancestors who had settled and intermarried with Brahmins of Murnae about seven generations ago, which led to the introduction of Thuggee in the area. A Thug hailing from Shikohabad whilst talking of his clan's origin recounted to Perry a tradition that the Munhars were influenced to take up Thuggee after witnessing the immense plunder acquired by Afghans, Mewatties and the Sheikhs.[49]

A group called "River Thugs" preyed upon people travelling on the Ganga and contained around 300 members.[50] They were based deep in the South Bengal region.[51] Sleeman in 1839 identified a band called "Meypunnaists" who he stated abducted children to sell them further. Another band called "Tashmabazes" who utilised methods introduced by a British soldier deployed at Kanpur in 1802 were also identified by him.[52]

Colonial British view[edit]

The British view of the Thuggee was merely as a form of ritual murder by Kali-worshippers. Sleeman's view of it as an aberrant faith was based on the contemporary British view of Hinduism as a despicable and immoral faith of idol worship.[13] R. C. Sherwood in Asiatick Resarches published in 1820 traces this phenomenon back to the Muslim conquests of India and suggested links to Hindu mythology.[53] Charles Trevelyan however instead of seeing them as a deviant sect, considered them to be representatives of the "essence" of Hinduism which he considered as "evil" and "false".[54] Sleeman considered some Brahmins acted as intelligence providers to Thugs, claiming that they profited from Thuggee and directed it.[55]

Kali's worship by thugs, both Muslims and Hindus, was emphasised by the British. McLeod commented, "It is a notable fact that not only amongst the Thugs, but in an especial manner among all lawless fraternities, and to a certain extent throughout the uneducated population of Central India, the Mussulmans vie with the Hindus in a devotion of this sanguinary deity (Devi or Bhavani) far exceeding that they pay to any other."[56] David Ochterlony blamed the pindaris for the rise of Thuggee while Sleeman blamed it on Indian rulers dismissing their armies which took away the jobs of many soldiers.[8] Based on Sleeman's writings about the Thugs, Robert Vane Russell claimed that most of them were Kanjars. He viewed the Muslim Kanjars as having recently converted to Islam.[6]

Alexander Cunningham in 1882 had commented on Hiouen-Thsang's remarks about "people who visited Kahalgaon forgot to leave it", stating that the actual reason might have been different than what the monk meant and made an analogy of it with Kahalgaon's later reputation as a place frequented by the "River Thugs".[17]

21st-century views[edit]

Since the 1970s and 1980s, some scholars have questioned the concept of Thuggee. For example, Martine van Woerkens of École Pratique des Hautes Études 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.[57] 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."[58]

In his book, Dash agrees the revisionist perspective raises valid points, noting that colonial British observers and early scholarship into the Thug movement brought their own preconceptions and misunderstandings that led to wide acceptance of inaccuracies. For example, Dash notes that colonialists believed the motivation for Thug murder was primarily religious devotion to Kali—but a closer look at the data reveals that monetary gain was the primary motivation for Thuggee and men routinely 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.[19] Another common error among early British observers was the belief that roaming Thug groups were tightly-knit fraternities or fixed groupings who traveled and murdered together in for many years. In reality, Thug groupings were typically more informal and often ad-hoc. They frequently came together for short periods periods of time or seasonally (recognizing each other by coded verbal cues or subtle details of dress), then parted ways after committing their crimes.

At the same time, Dash rejects extreme scepticism that argues against the existence of Thugs as a secret network of groups with a modus operandi different from highwaymen. He contends that the weight of evidence proves beyond doubt that Thugs existed more or less as commonly imagined. Nowhere else in recorded history, he maintains, was there another group with the same basic pattern of befriending and inveigling travelers to allay suspicion, and then strangling victims as a prelude to theft, followed by concealment of their corpses. He cites evidence such as a consistency of reports from both native and colonial sources across many decades, and excavated corpses in graves whose locations were revealed to Sleeman's team by Thug informants. Dash examines Sleeman's extensive, thorough documentation, which he contends contains much reliable and valuable information even after adjusting for biases and other limitations.

Cynthia Ann Humes states that the testimony of most of the thugs captured by Sleeman doesn't support his view of priests profiting from and directing the Thugs. She adds that the Islamic idea of fate or Iqbal was more commonly invoked while invoking Bhavani was rare.[55]

Historian Kim Wagner views the policies of East India Company in relation to dismissal of armies of the conquered Indian kingdoms as being responsible for Thuggee. Roaming bands of freelance soldiers had often joined one kingdom or another during the pre-British era, with the main income of many armies coming from plunder. After being dismissed from military service, they turned to robbing as a means of subsistence.[8] He also contested whether the thugs mentioned by Firuz Shah Tughlaq's biography were actually the same Thugs the British authorities fought against.[59]

English language[edit]

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. A Bollywood film is being made based on the novel. It is titled Thugs of Hindostan and stars Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif and Fatima Sana Shaikh in lead roles and is being directed by Vijay Krishna Acharya. It is being produced by Aditya Chopra under the Yash Raj Films production banner. Filming began in Malta in June 2017 and the film is scheduled to release during Diwali 2018.

See also[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor is based on the Thuggee cult, revolving around a fictional Thug called Ameer Ali. The novel popularized the word "thug" in the English language.
  • The 1931 crime novel The Case of the Frightened Lady by Edgar Wallace makes an indirect reference to the Thuggee murders by featuring "Indian scarves" used as murder weapons, as do its 1940 and 1963 West German film adaptations.
  • The 1939 film Gunga Din features British soldiers' conflict with a resurgent sect of Thuggee cultists.
  • Sympathy For The Devil (1968), a song by The Rolling Stones, features the lyrics: "And I laid traps for the troubadors / Who get killed before they reach Bombay" possibly referencing the murder of Tibetan musicians by Thuggee cultists.
  • The Stranglers of Bombay (1959), a film centering about a lone British officer investigating and uncovering the doings of the Thuggee cult.
  • Sunghursh (1968), an Indian Bollywood film, has a fictionalized account of a thug trying not to join his family business of Thuggee
  • The Deceivers (1988) is an adventure film based on the 1952 John Masters novel of the same name regarding the murderous Thugs of India. Pierce Brosnan plays William Savage, a tax-collector of a British-Indian company in 1825 who goes under cover to investigate a Thuggee sect.
  • Sikh Guru Nanak's Janamsakhis describe an encounter with a Thug Sheikh Sajjan[60]
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom showcases the Thuggee cult with fictionalized religious ritual and the primary antagonist, Mola Ram, being a Thuggee High Priest of Kali.
  • The fictional DC Comics villain Ravan, a member of the Suicide Squad, is a modern-day member of the Thuggee cult.
  • The Black Company, a dark fantasy series by Glen Cook, features a cult called the Deceivers, largely based on the Thuggee, who play a major role in the later novels.
  • Ameer Ali thug na peela rumal ni gaanth, a novel in 3 parts by the famous Gujarati thriller writer Harkisan Mehta, is a fictionalized account of the thug Amir Ali,[61] with references to the infamous Pindari chief Chitu Pindari.[62][better source needed]
  • Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru (2017; Tamil) an honest police officer finds himself transferred again and again due to his sincerity. After his latest transfer, he comes across a file that involves a gang of ruthless thieves who loot and kill along the highway.
  • A Tamil movie Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru (2017), was also made in reference to this group. A group of 13 people whose roots go back to these Thuggee tribes camouflaged themselves as a logistics and goods delivery vendors and plundered random cities and brutally murdered families, women and children included. Tamil Nadu police took this matter seriously when a member of legislative assembly was victimized. It took them over 18 months a country wide spread operation with limited resources to pin down this cult group.
  • Thugs of Hindostan (2018) is a Bollywood epic action-adventure film based on a band of Thugs resisting the British East India Company's rule in India. The film stars Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Lloyd Owen.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 26. ISBN 9780230590205.
  2. ^ "Thuggees – the Cult Assassins of India". October 2, 2014.
  3. ^ "Tracing India's cult of Thugs". 3 August 2003. Los Angeles Times.
  4. ^ a b Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. pp. 28, 36 & 37. ISBN 9781847084736.
  5. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 154; 155. ISBN 9780230590205.
  6. ^ a b c Martine van Woerkens (3 February 2011). The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India. University of Chicago Press. p. 136. ISBN 9780226850863.
  7. ^ a b Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 37. ISBN 9781847084736.
  8. ^ a b c K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 92. ISBN 9780230590205.
  9. ^ a b "Thug - Indian bandit". Retrieved 1 October 2017.
  10. ^ Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 36. ISBN 9781847084736.
  11. ^ a b c David Scott Katsan (2006). The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Volume 1. Oxford University Press. p. 141. ISBN 9780195169218.
  12. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 141. ISBN 9780230590205.
  13. ^ a b Will Sweetman, Aditya Malik (May 23, 2016). Hinduism in India: Modern and Contemporary Movements. SAGE Publications India. ISBN 9789351502319.
  14. ^ Kim A. Wagner (2009). Stranglers and Bandits: A Historical Anthology of Thuggee. Oxford University Press. p. 133; 134.
  15. ^ R.V. Russell; R.B.H. Lai (1995). The tribes and castes of the central provinces of India. Asian Educational Services. p. 559. ISBN 978-81-206-0833-7. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  16. ^ "Thugs". Retrieved 1 October 2017.
  17. ^ a b Martine van Woerkens (2002). The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India. University of Chicago Press. p. 110. ISBN 9780226850856.
  18. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 26; 27; 28. ISBN 9780230590205.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Dash, Mike Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult ISBN 1-86207-604-9, 2005
  20. ^ Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official by William Sleeman. 2005-03-27. Retrieved 1 October 2017.
  21. ^ a b Sleeman, William H. (1915). Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official by William Sleeman.
  22. ^ Richard James Popplewell (1995). Intelligence and imperial defence: British intelligence and the defence of the Indian Empire, 1904-1924. Frank Cass. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-7146-4580-3. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
  23. ^ Lois H. Gresh; Robert Weinberg (4 April 2008). Why Did It Have To Be Snakes: From Science to the Supernatural, The Many Mysteries of Indiana Jones. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 104–107. ISBN 978-0-470-22556-1. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
  24. ^ Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 247; 248; 249. ISBN 9781847084736.
  25. ^ Richardson, Louise. What Terrorists Want (2007 ed.). Random House. p. 27.
  26. ^ "Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology and Identity", by Prem Chowdhry, p. 137
  27. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 167. ISBN 9780230590205.
  28. ^ Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 193. ISBN 9781847084736.
  29. ^ Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 48. ISBN 9781847084736.
  30. ^ Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 49. ISBN 9781847084736.
  31. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 168. ISBN 9780230590205.
  32. ^ a b Twain, Mark (18 August 2006). Following the Equator (ASCII). EBook. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 27 February 2011.
  33. ^ Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 193. ISBN 9781847084736.
  34. ^ Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 249. ISBN 9781847084736.
  35. ^ "Thugs Traditional View". BBC. Archived from the original (shtml) on 17 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-17.
  36. ^ Sinister sects: Thug, Mike Dash's investigation into the gangs who preyed on travellers in 19th-century India by Kevin Rushby, The Guardian, Saturday, 11 June 2005.
  37. ^ "The Thugs Worshipping Kalee". The Missionary Repository for Youth, and Sunday School Missionary Magazine. XII: 98. 1848. Retrieved 6 November 2015.
  38. ^ Brigitte Luchesi; Kocku von Stuckrad (2004). Religion im kulturellen Diskurs. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 623–624. ISBN 978-3-11-017790-9. Retrieved 20 April 2011.
  39. ^ Douglas M. Peers (2013). India Under Colonial Rule: 1700-1885. Routledge. p. 57. ISBN 978-1-31-788286-2.
  40. ^ Martine van Wœrkens; Catherine Tihanyi (2002). The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India. University of Chicago Press. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-226-85086-3. Retrieved 19 April 2011.
  41. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 141.
  42. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 122. ISBN 9780230590205.
  43. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 154; 155. ISBN 9780230590205.
  44. ^ Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 16; 39. ISBN 9781847084736.
  45. ^ Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 38; 39. ISBN 9781847084736.
  46. ^ Martine van Woerkens (November 2002). The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India. p. 134. ISBN 9780226850863.
  47. ^ Martine van Woerkens (November 2002). The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India. p. 133. ISBN 9780226850863.
  48. ^ Martine van Woerkens (November 2002). The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India. p. 133;134. ISBN 9780226850863.
  49. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 154; 155. ISBN 9780230590205.
  50. ^ Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 247. ISBN 9781847084736.
  51. ^ Mike Dash (3 February 2011). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Granta. p. 249. ISBN 9781847084736.
  52. ^ Martine van Woerkens. The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India. p. 103.
  53. ^ Bart Moore-Gilbert (1996). Writing India, 1757-1990: The Literature of British India. Manchester University Press. p. 86.
  54. ^ P.D. Reeves (June 10, 2010). "Sleeman in Oudh: An Abridgement of W. H. Sleeman's A Journey Through the Kingdom of Oude in 1849-50". Cambridge University Press.
  55. ^ a b "Encountering Kālī: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West". University of California Press. 2003.
  56. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 140; 141.
  57. ^ van Woerkens, Martine (2002). The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India.
  58. ^ Mike Dash" (8 July 2005). "The sacred slaughterers. Book review of Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult". The Independent. Archived from the original on 12 July 2005.
  59. ^ K. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India. Springer. p. 156. ISBN 9780230590205.
  60. ^ "Sheikh Sajjan". Retrieved 8 July 2017.
  61. ^ "Confessions of a Thug (novel)".Amir Ali
  62. ^ "Pindari".


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Thuggee". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Dash, Mike Thug: the true story of Indias murderous cult ISBN 1-86207-604-9, 2005
  • Dutta, Krishna (2005) The sacred slaughterers. Book review of Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult by Mike Dash. In The Independent (Published: 8 July 2005) text
  • Guidolin, Monica "Gli strangolatori di Kali. Il culto thag tra immaginario e realtà storica", Aurelia Edizioni, 2012, ISBN 978-88-89763-50-6.
  • Paton, James 'Collections on Thuggee and Dacoitee', British Library Add. Mss. 41300
  • Woerkens, Martine van The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India (2002),

External links[edit]