[thuhg-ee, thuh-gee]
Thuggee (or tuggee, ठग्गी) (from Hindi ‘thief’, from Sanskrit ‘scoundrel’, from ‘to conceal’) was an Indian network of secret fraternities engaged in murdering and robbing travellers, operating from at least the 17th century (and possibly as early as 13th century) to the 19th century. The group are the origin of the term "thug", as many Indian words passed into common English during British Imperial rule of India.

Working method

Thuggee groups practiced large-scale robbery and murder of travellers. Their modus operandi was to befriend unsuspecting travellers and win their trust; when the travellers allowed the thugs to join and walk with them (sometimes for hundreds of miles), the group of thugs killed them at a suitable place and time before robbing them. Their method of killing was very often strangulation, performed by throwing a yellow scarf, called a Rumaal, around the neck. Usually two or three thugs would strangle one traveller. Because they used strangulation as the method of murder they were also frequently called "Phansigars", or "noose-operators". The thugs then hid the corpses, often by burying them or by throwing them into wells..

Thuggee groups consisted of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, though their patroness was the Hindu Goddess Kali, whom they often called Bhowanee.Some historians classify the thugs as a cult or sect.

Thugs preferred to kill their victims at certain suitable places, called beles, that they knew well. They killed their victims usually in darkness while the thugs made music or noise to escape discovery. Each member of the group had its own function, like luring travellers with charming words or that of guardians to prevent escape of victims while the killing took place. The leader of a gang was called jamaadaar.

Origin and recruitment

The earliest authenticated mention of the Thugs 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, 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's History of India, iii. 141).
Though they themselves trace their origin to seven Muslim tribes, the Hindu followers only seem to be related during the early periods of Islamic development; at any rate, their religious creed and staunch worship of Kali, one of the Hindu Tantric Goddesses, showed no Islamic influence. The practice of Thuggee was categorically stamped out by the British by the early 19th century. It should be noted that even at the time, a very small minority of the followers of Kali were Thuggees, whereas the majority of followers did not share the Thuggee viewpoint.

Induction was sometimes passed from father to son; the leaders of the thug groups tended to come from these hereditary lines. Sometimes the thugs did not kill the young children of the travellers and groomed them to become thugs themselves. Some men became thugs to escape great poverty. A fourth way of becoming a thug was by learning it from a guru (a teacher).

Number of victims

Estimates of the total number of victims depend heavily on the estimated length of existence of the thugs for which there are no reliable sources. According to the Guinness Book of Records the Thuggee cult was responsible for approximately 2,000,000 deaths. The British historian Dr. Mike Dash estimated that they killed 50,000 persons in total, based on his assumption that they only started to exist 150 years before their eradication in the 1830s.

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 to be the world's most prolific serial killer with 931 killings between 1790 and 1830 attributed to him. Reference to contemporary manuscript sources, however, shows that Behram actually gave inconsistent statements regarding the number of murders he had committed, and that 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 agreed to inform on his former companions, furthermore, Behram never stood trial for any of the killings attributed to him, the total of which must thus remain a matter of dispute.

British destruction of the secret society

The Thuggee cult was suppressed by the British rulers of India in the 1830s, due largely to the efforts of the civil servant William Sleeman, who 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 the concept of 'criminal tribes' and 'criminal castes' is still in use in India. The Department remained in existence until 1904, when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department. The defeat of the Thuggees played a part in securing Indian loyalty to the British Raj.

Previous attempts at prosecuting and eliminating the thugs had been largely unsuccessful due to the lack of evidence for their crimes. The thugs' modus operandi yielded very little evidence: no witnesses, no weapons, and no corpses. Besides, the thugs usually made no confessions when captured. Another main reason was the fact that thug groups did not act locally, but all over the Indian subcontinent, including territories that did not belong to British India in combination with the fact that there was then no centralised criminal intelligence agency, but only local, often corrupt police.

Possible misinterpretation of Thuggee by the British

In her book The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India (2002), Martine van Woerkens 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.

Krishna Dutta, while reviewing the book Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult by the British historian Dr. Mike Dash in The Independent, argues:

"In recent years, the revisionist view that thugee 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.

In popular culture

In literature

  • 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. Ameer Ali, the protagonist of Confessions of a Thug was said to be based on a real Thug called Syeed Amir Ali.
  • John Masters' novel The Deceivers also deals with the subject. A more recent book is George Bruce's The Stranglers: The cult of Thuggee and its overthrow in British India (1968). Dan Simmons's Song of Kali, 1985, features a Thuggee cult.
  • The 19th century American writer Mark Twain discusses the Thuggee fairly extensively in chapters 9 and 10 of "Following the Equator: Volume II", 1897, THE ECCO PRESS, ISBN 0-88001-519-5.
  • Christopher Moore's novel, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, describes a Thuggee ritual.
  • The 1976 science fiction novel Strangler's Moon by E.E. “Doc” Smith and Stephen Goldin is based on the Thuggee (book #2 in the Family D'Alembert series).
  • Sci-Fi/Fantasy author Glen Cook uses an India-like setting and Thuggee as a plot vehicle in his books Shadow Games (June 1989), and Dreams of Steel (April 1990). The books and later ones that continue the storyline form part of Cook's Black Company series.
  • The Serpent's Shadow by Mercedes Lackey has a Hindu villain, whose minions are Thuggee, almost without exception.
  • Author William T. Vollmann draws upon Sleeman in his story The Yellow Sugar, which is one of two tales in his collection The Rainbow Stories dealing with the colour yellow.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle attributes the disfigurements of the protagonist in his Sherlock Holmes novel The Adventure of the Crooked Man to his capture and torture by Thuggee rebels opposing the British occupation of India.
  • Italian writer Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) wrote about thugs in I Misteri della Jungla Nera (1895) and Le Due Tigri (1904) and other short stories.
  • Francisco Luís Gomes's novel (in Portuguese language), Os Brahamanes (1866), describes Thuggee rituals, while Magnod, the main character, joins in group.
  • Greg Iles developed one of the lead antagonists of his book, Mortal Fear, using the Thuggee as an explanation of the historically violent past the antagonist lead.
  • In "Around the World in 80 Days" there is a reference to the Thuggee.
  • Travel Writer Kevin Rushby presents research and personal findings on the Thug Cult in his book, "Children of Kali" and looks at how Thug history relates to todays India.

In film

  • The two most popular depictions of the cult in film are the 1939 film, Gunga Din and the 1984 film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The Indiana Jones movie is notable for Amrish Puri's villain, who is shown chanting lines such as "maaro maaro sooar ko, chamdi nocho pee lo khoon" - literally "Kill, Kill the pig, flay his skin, drink his blood". Temple of Doom was temporarily banned in India for an allegedly racist portrayal of Indians. Both films have the heroes fighting secret revivals of the cult to prevent them from resuming their reigns of terror, although Temple of Doom included features that were never part of the Thuggee, such as cardiectomy.
  • In the 1956 film Around the World in Eighty Days, starring David Niven, Passepartout rescues a princess captured by the Thugee and sentenced to burn to death in the funeral pyre with her deceased husband. (In the original Jules Verne novel, Thuggee are mentioned only briefly, and not directly in connection with this princess.)
  • In 1959 legendary British horror studio Hammer Film Productions released The Stranglers of Bombay. In the film, Guy Rolfe portrays an heroic British officer battling institutional mismanagement by the British East India Company, as well as Thuggee infiltration of Indian Society, in an attempt to bring the cultists to justice.
  • In 1965, Thuggee were portrayed in the Beatles film "Help!".
  • The 1968 Indian film Sangharsh, based on a story by Jnanpith Award winner Mahasweta Devi, presented the depiction of Thuggees that is considered to be very accurate.
  • The 1988 film version of The Deceivers, produced by Ismail Merchant and starring Pierce Brosnan, is a fictionalised account of the initial discovery and infiltration of the Thuggee sect by an imperial British administrator.
  • The 1954 film "I Misteri della Giungla Nera" directed by Gian Paolo Callegari and starring Lex Barker, where a group of religious fanatics in India, the Thugs, prey upon European and natives alike by capturing and offering them up in sacrifice to their frightful goddess, Kali (from imdb.) Adapted from Emilio Salgari's book by the same name.

In television

  • The word jamaadaar was the inspiration for the species called the Jem'Hadar in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. However the word jamaadar is certainly not unique to the Thuggee and was more usually used a rank - roughly equivalent to lieutenant - for native officers in British service and in the post-independence Indian Army. Therefore it is both extremely inaccurate and extremely unhelpful to present the Jem'Hadar as being directly related to the Thuggee.
  • In an episode of Highlander: The Series, "The Wrath of Kali", Duncan MacLeod deals with immortal Kamir (played by Indian actor Kabir Bedi), last of the Thuggee.
  • The fifth episode of the short-lived Clerks: The Animated Series featured a plot twist where the Little League World Champions were kidnapped by the Thuggee, where they were forced to chip rock away from walls (much like the Thuggee in the Indiana Jones film).
  • The 2006 television movie Obituary, starring Josie Bissett, features many references to the thuggees and Kali.
  • In an episode of Dad's Army, Corporal Jones tries to strangle a Captain in a training exercise with a makeshift 'Thuggee Scarf' which is a piece of cloth with Half a Crown in one end.
  • In the Episode "The Yellow Scarf Affair" of the series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Agent Napoleon Solo uncovers a revival of the Thuggee cult while investigating a plane crash in India.

See also

Notes and references


  • Dash, Mike Thug: the true story of India's 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
  • 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

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