Sunday, March 9, 2008


This post was supposed to be about Zeus but to sticking to a topic only leads to boredom. So today we will see about thugs. a killer cult in india during the british raaj. Thug is synonymous to theif or a cheat. The etymology of the word has its root in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit word sthag (scoundrel) is the root for the word thug.
Today the word has been imported to English dictionary through the British raaj in India.
It could mean,

Thug, (ठग), a member of the defunct Indian cult Thuggee
Thug, slang for a gangster, a petty thief, or a minor villain, deriving from the above cult
Thug, a gardening term meaning an over-vigorous plant that spreads excessively.

But the Thugees were(are) not minor villain. Nowadays however the number of Thugees are very few. They are the ones who cheat the travelers. They befriend the travelers and poison them and loot their property. However they may seem to be benign today, but this was not the case always. In the past they were a network of robbers who killed people and looted the possessions. Killings was even more important than robbery for them.
They had their own ritual and most important part of the killings is that there should not be any bloodshed, so they used to strangle the victim to death. They used a yellow rumaal (handkerchief) with a coin tied to it….

Modus operandi

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 throwing a yellow scarf or Rumaal around the neck. Usually two or three thugs were used to strangle one traveller. Because they used strangulation as the method of murder they were also frequently called "Phansigars", or "noose-operators." The thugs hid the corpses, often by burying them or by throwing them into wells.

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

Thugs 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.

Beliefs and practices

The murdering was done according to certain ancient and rigidly prescribed forms, and after the performance of special religious rites, in which the consecration of the pickaxe and the sacrifice of jaggery or gur formed a prominent part. The pickaxe was a necessary tool to dig graves.

According to 19th century writings about Thuggee, the will of the goddess by whose command and in whose honour they followed their calling was revealed to them through a very complicated system of omens. When the deed was done, rites were performed in the deity's honour, and a significant portion of the spoils was set apart for Her.

Number of victims

A group of thugs, ca. 1863

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

Maps showing the possessions of the British East India Company in 1765 and 1805

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.

Thugs today

Many people believe that thugs still operate on the train routes near Mugal sarai and Varanasi but no evidence and they are not murderous now.


Anonymous said...

Hello, just left a comment on an old post about Cannibal Aghora. As an American living in Brooklyn, NY, I enjoy tossing out the phrase "Thug" when people piss me off. It offends people, so I use the term sparingly, and only for major offenders. Interesting to find the root of this word and to think how it has evolved, or de-evolved in different cultures. Your post has taught me that I have for the most part, used the term correctly.

zenegra said...

Thanks for posting this information...Really very interesting...Thanks for posting..keep it up..