Thuggees – The Cult Assassins of India
Thuggees, from the Sanskrit word meaning “concealment”, were an organized gang of professional assassins – sometimes described as the world's first mafia – who operated from the 13th to the 19th centuries in India. Members of the fanatical religious group, who were infamous for their ritualistic assassinations carried out in the name of the Hindu Goddess Kali, were known as Thugs, a word that passed into the English language during the British occupation of India.
Colored drawing of two Thuggees pointing upwards to the sky to distract their victim, whilst another creeps up behind ready to strangle him. (Public domain)
The Thuggee Assassins of India
Thuggees worked by joining groups of travelers and gaining their trust before surprising them in the night and typically strangling them with a handkerchief or noose. By using this quick and quiet method, which left no blood and required no special weapons, the Thuggees would then rob their victim and bury them carefully.
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Their crimes involved a high degree of teamwork and co-ordination both during the infiltration phase and at the moment of attack. Each member of the gang had a special function, from luring travelers with charming words, acting as a lookout, or taking the role of the killer. Some estimates claim that the Thuggees were responsible for approximately two million deaths. However, estimates vary widely since there is no reliable source to confirm when the practice first began.
Indian encampment of Thugees circa 1857. (Archivist / Adobe Stock)
The First Record of the Thuggees
The first known record of the Thugs as an organized group in India, as opposed to ordinary thieves, is in Ẓiyāʾ-ud-Dīn Baranī's History of Fīrūz Shāh dated to around 1356. Although the Thugs traced their origin to seven Muslim tribes, Hindus also appear to have been associated with them from an early period.
The Hindu members of the Thuggees worshipped the goddess of destruction and renewal, Kali. At least some of them, this formed the basis of their actions, as it is said that they believed they were helping Kali maintain the worldly balance of good and evil. However, their Hindu faith was not very different from their contemporary non-Thugs, and the fact that some Thugs were Muslims also complicates the issue.
Drawing of “Hindoo Thugs and Poisoners” by William Carpenter from Illustrated London News 1857. (Public domain)
There is evidence, however, that all Thuggee assassins were united by common superstitions and rituals, which led to the gang being branded a cult or sect. The fraternity possessed a jargon of their own, known as ramasi, as well as certain signs by which its members recognized each other in the most remote parts of India.
They were also bound by a set of rules, such as the prohibition to steal a person’s property without killing them in accordance with ritual first. Brahmans were not killed because of their purity, killing of the sick was considered an unworthy sacrifice, and women were not killed because they were considered to be incarnations of Kali.
Kali, goddess of destruction and renewal, brandishing her sword and a severed head as she tramples her consort Shiva underfoot. (Public domain)
The Fraternity of Thuggees
Membership to the fraternity of Thuggees was often through hereditary lines, passed down from father to son. Others trained with a guru, similar to an apprenticeship, or tried to align themselves with other Thugs in the hope of being recruited. Sometimes the children of travelers who had been killed were then groomed to become Thugs themselves, as the presence of children would help allay suspicion.
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The Thuggee assassins were eventually suppressed by the British rulers of India in the 1830s, after the implementation of the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts, which stated: “It is hereby enacted, that whoever shall be proved to have belonged, either before or after the passing of this Act, to any gang of Thugs, either within or without the Territories of the East India Company, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, with hard labor.”
A number of strategies were implemented to aid the success of the new laws, including incentives for gang members to turn in their peers, and wide dissemination of reports regarding Thuggee behavior to educate and warn travelers and the general population.
Thuggees typically strangled their victims during the night. Image from ‘Confessions of a Thug’ (1839) by Philip Meadows Taylor. (Public domain)
According to the Guinness Book of Records, Behram the Indian Thug, holds the record as the most prolific murderer. As the leader of a Thuggee cult in Oudh district, modern-day Uttar Pradesh in India, at his trial in it was established that, between 1790 and 1840, he had strangled at least 931 victims. After his arrest, in 1840 Behram and his family were executed in Jabalpur.
Finally, after at least six centuries of wreaking havoc across India, the days of the Thugs came to an end. Today, their reputation lives on in their name, a term which is now widely used throughout the world to refer to aggressive and violent young criminals.
Top image: A group of Thuggees strangling a traveler on a highway in India in the early 19th century. Source: Public domain
By Joanna Gillan
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