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A group of Thuggees strangling a traveler on a highway in India in the early 19th century. Source: Public domain

Thuggees – The Cult Assassins of India

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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)

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.

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)

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)

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)

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.

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)

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

References

Advameg Inc. No date. “The Thuggee” in Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. Available at: http://www.unexplainedstuff.com/Secret-Societies/The-Thuggee.html

Bhattacharya, S. 2020. “Monsters in the dark: the discovery of Thuggee and demographic knowledge in colonial India” in Palgrave Commun 6, 78. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-0458-8

Gandhi, L. 18 November 2013. “What A Thug's Life Looked Like in 19th Century India” in NPR. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/11/18/245953619/what-a-thugs-life-looked-like-in-nineteenth-century-india

Perry, A. 22 July 2002. “Killing for 'Mother' Kali” in Time Magazine. Available at: https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,322673,00.html

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 20 July 1998. “Thug” in Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/thug

Comments

13th century -- Rise of Islamic Sultanates in Indian Subcontinent
19th century -- Beginning of British Downfall in Indian Subcontinent

Now all of these makes perfect sense.

not true at all...one thing about the Thuggee is that they WOULD NOT attack British travellers even in their heyday, they feared the organised wrath of the East India company/British Empire, which they were right to - thats what shut them down in the end...weak and unarmed parties and solo travellers were most in danger, the Thugs weren't stupid, thats why they lasted as long as they did...

Firstly "thug" is a british term derieved "during the colonial period "...it is called to the tribal people(mostly in forested area) as british wanted to cut down the forests for railway lines but the tribal people used to protect the forest as it was sacred(coz u know we can't live with forests)so tribals used to chase/kill the british in doing so....hence british blacklisted these tribe for killing people..which in real sense they were protecting the forests....(so for saving forests..that is what they got...coz invaders where not happy)..as Indians went on the lines of Invaders , now Indians are taught to save forests....as Kali is a ferocious figure..article chose this for making article evil/bad..

The British destroyed the Thugs by capturing and torturing Thug prisoners to get more names of Thugs. All male Thugs were hung and their women and children imprisoned in convents for life and forbidden to have offspring thereby cutting off the hereditary bloodline of Thug families.

It's interesting to note that the original Thugs were Muslims, likely former members of the Islamic cult of Assassins driven out of Iran and into India by the Mongol invasion. They regarded Kali as the Hindu manifestation of Mohammad's daughter Fatima.

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