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Thuggee (or tuggee, ठग्गी ṭhagī) (from Hindi ठग ṭhag ‘thief’, from Sanskrit स्थग sthaga ‘cunning’, ‘sly’, ‘fraudulent’, ‘dishonest’, ‘scoundrel’, from स्थगति sthagati ‘he conceals’)[1] is the term for a particular kind of murder and robbery of travellers in India.


[edit] Thuggery

The English word "thug" is a truncation of 'thuggee'. It is one of many Indian words borrowed into English during the British colonial period. The English connotation of 'thug' is synonymous with terms like hoodlum and hooligan, indicating a person (who may or may not be anti-social) who harasses others, usually for hire. People regarded as thugs might commit assault (or 'menace'), battery, even robbery and grievous bodily harm, but they usually stop short of murder. Additionally, "thugs" usually travel in pairs, though they can work alone or in groups of four to six members, and are typically open about their presence (except to law enforcement officials); while "Thuggee" were covert and operated as members of a group, often called a "Thuggee cult" by the British. Hence, the word "Thuggee" is capitalised while the word "thug" usually is not; which enables distinction of a "Thug" (here, a short form of "Thuggee") from a "thug".

In the heyday of Thuggee activity, travellers were typically part of a travelling group, so the term Thuggee typically referred to killing of a large number of people in a single operation. This aspect distinguishes Thuggee from similar concept of Dacoity, which means simple armed robbery.

Dacoity has similarities with the terms brigand and bandit from European and Latin American experience, but there appear to be no exact Western parallels for Thuggee. Perhaps the closest concepts would be the format of piracy, though this is solely maritime robbery (usually with murder), and the earlier, but similar, format of raids on coastal settlements by Viking seafarers. Some aspects, however, are reminiscent of the Mafia group of organisations.

Between them, these classes of criminal activity illustrate some of the mystique that attached to the Thugs and the complex mixture of fear and dread of these murderous Alpha predators that was felt by the ordinary people who might well be their potential victims.

There is some question as to the extent of the religious dimension of Thuggee. Most contemporary sources described Thuggee as being a religious cult, but some modern sources feel it was merely a specialised form of organised crime or paramilitary activity, with no particular religious dimension beyond the normal piety of the villagers from whom its members were recruited.

[edit] Time period

The concept of Thuggee is known from the 17th century, though the term and/or activity possibly dates back as early as the 13th century. Thuggee was actively practiced at least through the end of the 19th century. If remnants of the Thuggee tradition survived into the 20th and 21st centuries, they did so very covertly. The film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is based on the premise that Thuggee cults survived covertly into the early 20th century.

Stern suppression by the British was important in reducing Thugee activity but more significant was the introduction of modern methods of travel, in particular the displacement of travelling on foot or by horse in groups by the railway, which effectively rendered Thuggee obsolete.

[edit] The nature

The particular groups, as well as the general concept, were often equally durable and would outlive the 'careers' of individual members to develop into a crime family lasting generations. These groups progressed from being simple gangs into becoming 'fraternities' or even 'cults', featuring the initiation of new members, either through the heredity of a criminal underclass, or through an apprenticeship, such as normally associated with skilled or learned professions or the training programs of elite military units. Other sources describe the Thugs as a criminal 'tribe' or caste. Over the course of generations, the secrets must be kept within the 'family'. The marriage of offspring within the group both safeguards the secret knowledge, allowing it to be imparted steadily to the children without the risk of uninitiated neighbours overhearing, and reinforces the exclusive and selective nature of the organisation. This preserves the mystique, which is in itself part of the formula of success, and creates an elite aura around it. At the moment of attack, the sudden revelation of the identity of the assailants produces a shock that disables potential defensive manoeuvres, at least for a few, vital moments, while the reputation for invincibility engenders a defeatism that results in a fait accompli.

[edit] The practice

Thugs were active all over the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent. Maps showing the possessions of the British East India Company in 1765 and 1805

Thuggee is described as a cult of people engaged in the multiple murder and robbery of travellers. At the time, most travellers in India would travel in caravan for mutual support and security, since travel meant the crossing of difficult terrain before the coming of metalled roads, the passing among different races, religions and castes, at a period before police forces were formed. In order to attempt the massacre of an entire caravan, the Thugs needed to be numerous and well-coordinated. They also needed to be sufficiently stealthy, at least in the early stages, to begin their slaughter without rousing all at once. This required a high degree of planning, organisation – including props and patter – timing, teamwork and discipline. With anything less than complete success a survivor could escape to raise a hue and cry. These horrendous but sophisticated operations lay somewhere between organised crime and paramilitary activity and were far removed from the ordinary criminal in the audacity, magnitude, and ruthlessness of the enterprise.

The modus operandi was to join a caravan and become accepted as bona fide travellers themselves. The Thugs would need to delay any attack until their fellow travellers had dropped the initial wariness of the newcomers and had been lulled into a false sense of security. The Thugs first needed to befriend the travellers and win their trust. Once the travellers had allowed the Thugs to join them and disperse amongst them (a task which might sometimes, depending on the size of the target group, require accompaniment for hundreds of miles), the Thugs would wait for a suitable place and time before killing and robbing them.

There were obviously variations on a theme. When tackling a large group, a Thuggee band might disperse along a route and join a group in stages, concealing their acquaintanceship, such that they could come to outnumber their intended victims by small, non-threatening increments. If the travellers had doubts about any one party, they might confide their worries to another party of the same Thuggee band. The trusted band would thus be the best placed to deal with these members of the caravan at the appropriate time, but might also be able to advise their colleagues to 'back off' or otherwise modify their behaviour, to allay suspicion.

The killing place would need to be remote from local observers and suitable to prevent escape (e.g., backed against a river). Thugs tended to develop favoured places of execution, called beles. They knew the geography of these places well—better than their victims. They needed to, if they were to anticipate the likely escape routes and hiding-places of the quicker-witted and more determined of the travellers.

The timing might be at night or during a rest-break, when the travellers would be busy with chores and when the background cries and noise would mask any sounds of alarm. A quick and quiet method, which left no stains and required no special weapons, was strangulation. This method is particularly associated with Thuggee and led to the Thugs also being referred to as the Phansigars, or "noose-operators", and simply as "stranglers" by British troops. Usually two or three Thugs would strangle one traveller. The Thugs would then need to dispose of the bodies: they might bury them or might throw them into a nearby well. [2].

The leader of a gang was called the 'jemadar': this is an ordinary Indian word and is now used as the rank of an Army officer (Lieutenant), who would command a similar number of men to a Thuggee gang-leader. An English equivalent term might be 'the Boss' or 'the Guv'nor' (Governor).

As with modern criminal gangs, each member of the group had his own function: the equivalent of the 'hitman,' 'the lookout,' and the 'getaway driver' would be those Thugs tasked with luring travellers with charming words or acting as guardian to prevent escape of victims while the killing took place.

They usually killed their victims in darkness while the thugs made music or noise to escape discovery. If burying bodies close to a well-travelled trade-route, they would need to disguise the 'earthworks' of their graveyard as a camp-site, tamping down the covering mounds and leaving some items of rubbish or remnants of a fire to 'explain' the disturbances and obscure the burials.

One reason given for the Thuggee success in avoiding detection and capture so often and over such long periods of time is a self-discipline and restraint in avoiding groups of travelers on shorter journeys, even if they seemed laden with suitable plunder. Choosing only travelers far from home gave more time until the alarm was raised and the distance made it less likely that colleagues would follow on to investigate the disappearances. Another reason given is the high degree of teamwork and co-ordination both during the infiltration phase and at the moment of attack. This was a sophisticated criminal elite that knew its business well and approached each 'operation' like a military mission.

[edit] Use of garotte

The garotte is often depicted as the common weapon of the Thugee. It is sometimes described as a rumal (head covering or kerchief), or translated as "yellow scarf." "Yellow" in this case may refer to a natural cream or khaki colour rather than bright yellow. Most Indian males in Central India or Hindustan would have a puggaree or head-scarf, worn either as a turban or worn around a kullah and draped to protect the back of the neck. Types of scarves were also worn as cummerbunds, in place of a belt. Any of these items could potentially have served as strangling ligatures.

[edit] Religion and Thuggee

Thuggee groups might be Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, but Thuggee is particularly associated with followers of the Hindu Goddess Kali (or Durga), whom they often called Bhowanee.[3][4][5]

Some sources view the Thugs as a cult or sect. Given the extent of the problem, in geographical scale and in the duration of time, it is likely that many groups would wish to keep their secrets from betrayal from within and from intrusion by outsiders and would have evolved into secret criminal fraternities. It also follows that if they were repeatedly successful, then they must have 'divine blessing' and would wish to give thanks to, and worship, the deity to whom they ascribed their support. Even in the West, criminality and religious observance are not always mutually incompatible.

Whether all Thugs could be ascribed to a single, universal cult of 'Thuggee' seems unlikely. The concept of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, or any pairing of these, acting in concert, yet part of a religious order, seems far-fetched. So does the concept of observant Moslems worshipping Kali. Nevertheless, it does seem plausible that several might constitute themselves as religious, or quasi-religious, orders. In the West, the Order of Knights Templar combined a military purpose with a religious form, and most other Orders of Knights had a religious dimension, whilst in India, the Sikh Khalsa movement has a similar military and religious tone.[citation needed]

[edit] Origin and recruitment

A group of thugs, ca. 1863

The earliest recorded mention of the Thugs as a special band or fraternity, rather than as ordinary thieves, 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).

Induction was sometimes passed from father to son, in what would now be termed a criminal underclass. The leaders of long-established Thug groups tended to come from these hereditary lines, as the gang developed into a criminal 'tribe'. Other men would get to know of a Thug band and would hope to be recruited, in the way that one might aspire to join an elite regiment or university: they were the best operators in the business and, like a regiment or college fraternity, once in the group, there was the camaraderie of numbers and shared experience. The robbery became less a question of solving problems poverty and more a profession, like a soldier. Sometimes the young children of the travellers would be spared and groomed to become Thugs themselves. The presence of children on a mission would help allay suspicion. A fourth way of becoming a Thug was by training with a guru. This was like an apprenticeship for a guild or profession, during which the candidate could be assessed for reliability, courage, discretion and discipline. [2]

[edit] The magnitude of the problem

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.[6]

[edit] Suppression

The Thuggee cult was suppressed by the British rulers of India in the 1830s,[2]The arrival of the British and their development of a methodology to tackle crime meant the techniques of the Thugs had met their match. Suddenly, the mysterious disappearances were mysteries no longer and it became clear how even large caravans could be infiltrated by apparently small groups, that were in fact acting in concert. Once the techniques were known to all travellers, the element of surprise was gone and the attacks became botched, until the hunters became the hunted.

Civil servant William Henry Sleeman, superintendent, 'Thuggee and Dacoity Dept.' in 1835, and later its Commissioner in 1839.

Reasons for British success included:

  • the dissemination of reports regarding Thuggee developments across territorial borders, so that each administrator was made aware of new techniques as soon as they were put in practice, so that travellers could be warned and advised on possible counter-measures.
  • the use of King's evidence programmes gave an incentive for gang members to inform on their peers to save their own life. This undermined the code of silence that protected members.
  • at a time when, even in Britain, policing was in its infancy, the British set up a dedicated police force, the Thuggee Department, and special tribunals that prevented local influence from affecting criminal proceedings.
  • the police force applied the new detective methodologies to record the locations of attacks, the time of day or circumstances of the attack, the size of group, the approach to the victims and the behaviours after the attacks. In this way, a single informant, belonging to one gang in one region, might yield details that would be applicable to most, or all, gangs in a region or indeed across all India.

The initiative or suppression was 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.[2] 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 it led to the promulgation of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, though it was repealed upon independence of India, the concept of 'criminal tribes' and 'criminal castes' is still prevalent in India.[7][8]. The Department remained in existence until 1904, when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID).

[edit] Possible misinterpretation by the British and scepticism about the existence

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:[9]

"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.

[edit] In popular culture

[edit] In literature

[edit] 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.)[10]
  • In 1959 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.
  • The 1968 Bollywood film Sangharsh, based on a story by Jnanpith Award winner, Mahasweta Devi, presented a fictionalised account of vendetta within a Thuggee cult in the holy Indian town of Varanasi.
  • 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.

[edit] In television

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes and references

  1. ^ Thugs 1902 Encyclopedia Brittanica.Pali-sthag.
  2. ^ a b c d Dash, Mike Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult ISBN 1-86207-604-9, 2005
  3. ^ Dash, pp. 284-286 in the Dutch translation of the book
  4. ^ Dash, pp. 247 in the Dutch translation of the book
  5. ^ Dash, page 329 of the UK edition - notes to Chapter 16
    It was noted, even at the time, that only a very small minority of the followers of Kali were Thuggees. Many Thuggees worshipped Kali but most supporters of Kali did not practise Thuggee. Some Thuggee groups claimed descent from seven Muslim tribes, but the majority of Hindu followers only seem to be related during the early periods of Islamic development through their religious creed and staunch worship of Kali, one of the Hindu Tantric Goddesses. At a time of political unrest, with changes from Hindu Rajput rulers to Moslem Moghul emperors and viceroys, and possibly back again, a wise group would display allegiance to both creeds, but its ultimate loyalty was probably only to itself. "There seem to have been very few Sikh Thugs. But Sahib Khan, the Deccan strangler, 'knew Ram Sing Siek: he was a noted Thug leader - a very shrewd man,' who also served with the Pindaris for a while and was responsible for the assassination of the notorious Pindari leader Sheikh Dulloo.' Sleeman, Ramaseeana I, 239-40."
  6. ^ James Paton, 'Collections on Thuggee and Dacoitee', British Library Add. Mss. 41300
  7. ^ "Thugs Traditional View" (shtml). BBC. Retrieved on 2007-09-17. 
  8. ^ Sinister sects: Thug, Mike Dash's investigation into the gangs who preyed on travellers in 19th-century India by Kevin Rushby, The Guardian, Saturday, June 11, 2005.
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ Verne, Jules (August 18, 2005). Around The World in Eighty Days.  See page 38, where the Thuggee chief is mentioned, and page 46, where the bride is referred to as a suttee.

[edit] Bibliography

  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • 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),

[edit] External links

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