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A Thug's Life in 19th Century India

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

A photograph of a group of elderly men sitting on a mat, taken in Peshawar, now in Pakistan, circa 1865. Two of the men are looking at each other with contempt, suggesting that they may actually be enemies who have been persuaded to be photographed together as examples of native "thugs."

Thuggees, from the Sanskrit word meaning “concealment”, were an organised 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. The word "thug" traces its roots to the Hindi and Urdu word thag, which means thief or swindler, and which itself is derived from the Sanskrit verb sthagati (to conceal).

Coloured drawing of two Thuggees pointing upwards to the sky to distract their victim, whilst another creeps up behind ready to strangle him.

They were widely portrayed as "born criminals" who worshipped Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. "The profession of a Thug, like almost every thing in India, is hereditary," according to the 1837 book Illustrations of the History and Practices of the Thugs.

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.

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.

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.

Drawing of “Hindoo Thugs and Poisoners” by William Carpenter from Illustrated London News 1857.

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 labour.”

Kali, goddess of destruction and renewal, brandishing her sword and a severed head as she tramples her consort Shiva underfoot.

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 behaviour to educate and warn travellers and the general population.

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.


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