Thuggee (or tuggee, ठग्गी ṭhagī) (from Hindi ठग ṭhag 'thief', from Sanskrit स्थग sthaga 'cunning', 'sly', 'fraudulent', 'dishonest', 'scoundrel', from स्थगति sthagati 'he conceals') is the term for a particular format for the murder and robbery of travellers in India.
The modern word "thug" derives from this term. It is one of many words of Indian origin that passed into common English, or at least the British English dialect of it, during the British Imperial rule of India. As is the case with most other adopted words, the current meaning has altered slightly from the original: a 'thug' is an anti-social person, harassing others. It is similar to terms such as hoodlum and hooligan. It may or may not involve robbery, but does not usually extend as far as murder.
As travellers at the time would be part of a caravan, the term Thuggee referred to the 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 formats help 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.
The concept of Thuggee is believed to date from at least the 17th century, though possibly as early as the 13th century, through to the 19th century.
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.
Thuggee was killed off by the British during the latter part of the early 19th century.
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 indicate to 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 (eg. 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, that left no stains and required no special tools, 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. .
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.
The 'garotte' is often described as a rumaal. It is sometimes translated as a 'yellow scarf', which sounds ritualised and particular. However, this may be partly due to elements being 'lost in translation'. 'Yellow' might simply be a natural 'cream' or 'khaki' (another word of Indian origin: meaning 'dusty' rather than 'beige-coloured' or 'tan-coloured')colour, rather than the canary-yellow hue that a Westerner might understand. A rumaal is often translated as a large 'handkerchief' and is a common item of dress, not a special item. A 'handkerchief' does not sound an ideal ligature but may have been chosen to indicate a shorter length of cloth than two other available items. 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 (in a manner similar to the cover of the kepi of a member of the French Foreign Legion). Alternatively, a cummerbund or scarf worn as a belt around the midriff would also serve as a useful tool. The suggestion is that a shorter and thinner cloth was preferred.
Religion and Thuggee
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.
Origin and recruitment
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 them to become Thugs themselves, in a manner similar to the child-gangs of Bill Sikes and Fagin in a fictional London, depicted in the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The presence of children on a 'mission' would help allay suspicion: they might start as lookouts during an attack, but would become indoctrinated and inured until ready to take a full role in the murders. A fourth way of becoming a Thug was by training with a 'guru'(a teacher). This was like an apprenticeship for a guild or profession, during which the candidate could be assessed for reliability, courage, discretion and discipline. 
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.
Early attempts at prosecuting and eliminating the Thugs had been largely unsuccessful due to the lack of evidence for their crimes. Their 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 that thug groups did not act locally, but all over the Indian subcontinent, including territories that did not belong to British India and that there was then no centralised criminal intelligence agency, but only local, often corrupt beadles. This mirrored the situation in Britain around this time.
The Thugs as a criminal 'tribe' seem to mirror many aspects of the Mafia organisations. In different parts of Italy, the format has different names and autonomous organisations, but the style and methods are common to them all. In Sicily,the format is called the Mafia, in Calabria it is the Ndrangheta, in the Naples area it is the Camorra and in the USA it is the Cosa Nostra (Our Thing: Our Business). In New York, the format is organised as 'Five Families', which are not biological families, but 'regiments' or 'business houses' to which members belong. These families last longer than the careers of the individual members. The leader changes over time, though certain real families prevail across the generations, within each 'crime family'. A code of 'omerta' or 'silence' is the norm. All of this illustrates the way the Thuggee groups would operate in various territories and across the various religions. Organised crime is often a Transnational Corporation (TNC) and will often transcend religious boundaries, where legitimate organisations will not.
The Thuggee cult was suppressed by the British rulers of India in the 1830s,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.
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 witness-protection programmes made it worthwhile for a gang-member to 'split' on his fellows, to save his own life: this undermined the purpose and practice of the 'fraternities' or 'sects' and broke the code of omerta amongst the gang 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 circumvented the opportunities to 'nobble' lay jurors and witnesses.
- 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, or possibly supergrass, 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. 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.. The Department remained in existence until 1904, when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID).
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.
- "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
- 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.
- 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 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 fictionalized 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.
- 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 Temple of Doom).
- 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.