Circa 1300 – mid/late 1800s
The Thugs or Thuggees, were history’s most notorious and deadly criminal cult. The name Thug, Thuggee or Tuggee is derived from the Sanskrit, sthag and Pali, thak. This means to hide or conceal, mainly a secret concealment.
Thugs were Hindu and Muslim Indians whose Thuggee cult was based on the worship of goddess, Kali. Kali is the destructive and creative mother goddess in the Hindu religion. Kali is the fierce aspect of Devi, the supreme goddess who is fundamental to all Hindu deities. The ongoing work of Creation is described by believers as the “play of Kali”.
Kali is believed to be the destroyer of evil spirits and the preserver of devotees. She is close to Shiva and her name derives from “kala”, from the Sanskrit words for dark or time. Kala also means Black Female as opposed to her consort, Shiva who is white. Kali is often portrayed standing on the inert form of her consort Shiva. She is sometimes in the company of she demons. Her eight arms hold weapons and/or the severed head of a demon. These objects held by Kali symbolize both her creative and destructive power. Kali demonstrates the ambivalence of deity which according to Hindu tradition manifests itself in the unending cycle of life and death, creation and destruction.
Thugs were a well organized, hereditary cult that practiced large scale robbery and murder, justified by their belief in serving Kali. Membership induction was often passed from father to son, with the women of the home being kept unaware of the men’s cult activity.
As a well organized group of professional murderers or assassins, Thugs traveled throughout India in gangs of 10 to 200 members, all dressed in various guises. They targeted travelers, especially wealthy travelers; gaining the confidence of their soon to be victims. When a favorable opportunity arose, Thugs strangled their victims with a handkerchief or noose around the victim’s neck. Once the victim was dead, the Thugs then plundered his belongings and buried the body. The acts of displaying false friendship, murder and the burial of the victim were performed according to an ancient, rigidly prescribed process. These barbaric acts were all part of their elaborate religious rites performed to honor Kali. The consecration of a pickaxe and the sacrifice of sugar were also very important parts of their religious rites. A portion of spoils of their robbery were often set aside for Kali.
Murder and Robbery
Murder and robbery were considered by Thugs as a religious duty and they considered themselves to be holy and honorable men. Such abhorrent behavior did not affect their moral feelings. They followed the instructions and will of their goddess through their interpretation of a very complicated system of omens. They often traveled extensively to accomplish their goals of murdering a wayward traveler.
The Thugs were a very close fraternity and used special jargon (ramasi) and hand signs to communicate with each other. Such secret communication methods allowed fellow Thugs to recognize each other in the furthest, most remote parts of India. As a well organized club, everyone played a part in the fraternity’s activities. Thugs who were too old or infirm to perform the travel and ritual attacks on travelers, served as guides, spies, supply providers and more. Because of the closeness, secrecy and discipline of the Thug organization, they were rarely if ever, suspected of any wrongdoings. They were recognized by many as normal law abiding citizens and went unmolested for centuries, free from suspicion or persecution by both Hindu and Muslim authorities. However, there were average persons, especially travelers, who were well aware of the dangers presented by the strange Thugs.
We will never know the extent of the murderous activities of the Thugs. Estimated deaths by Thugs were as high as 40,000 a year. Many believe that over 2 million people died at the hands of Thugs. The accomplishment and secrecy of such large numbers of deaths caused by Thuggees was a result of the Thug’s well organized and highly secret fraternity. Greatly aiding Thuggee success was the lack of any central authority powerful enough to put an end to Thug ritual murder. The great Mughal Empire that ruled the Indian subcontinent for centuries had lost power and fragmented into many independent and semi autonomous kingdoms who collectively could not contend with the Thuggee threat.
Sir William Henry Sleeman
It wasn’t until the British Raj, or the British Rule that the final suppression and elimination of the Thugs was accomplished. Thuggee was finally suppressed and ended for good in the mid-late 1800s. The suppression and eventual elimination of the Thugs was largely due to the efforts of Sir William Henry Sleeman, the British authority who began an extensive campaign to eliminate the practice of both Thuggee and Dacoity (robbery and murder committed by dacoits, a cult of criminals from India and Burma). Sleeman began operations against the Thugs in 1835, establishing extensive profiling, intelligence and punishment activities. A police organization was formed as the Thuggee and Dacoity Department within the Government of India and remained in existence through 1904 when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department. During Sleeman’s initial operations more than 1400 Thugs were imprisoned for life or hung.
British controlled informers and centralized management of intelligence operations opened the tight secrecy of the Thuggee organization. Numerous Thugs were exposed and captured. Constant harassment, exposure, arrest and punishment resulted in the collapse of the entire Thug organization. Eventually the Thuggee movement was extinguished forever in the mid to late 1800s.
The elimination of the Thuggee threat played a major part in securing the loyalty of Indians to the British Raj and dramatically improved the security of average Indians, especially the many travelers, traders and merchants.