The Thuggees were a cult of murderers who killed and robbed people travelling alone or in caravans. They are often regarded as a secret society or the world’s first mafia family. Tracing their origins to ancient roots, these wayfarer killers chalked up an astounding number of deaths – the Guinness Book of World Records estimated it to be around 2 million – and made a place for themselves in Indian (and world) history. As you will read on, the Thuggees were exceptional in many ways:
1. Unity in Diversity
Though the Thuggees traced their origins to Muslim tribes, there were both Muslims and Hindus (and reportedly some Sikhs) in the gang. Even more incredibly, all Thugs worshipped the Goddess Kali and the ritualistic killings were done in her honour; this was done despite idol worship being forbidden in Islam. Members also varied from poor farmers to rich noblemen who, apart from their murderous activities, were often upstanding citizens in their communities.
2. NOT a bloody mess
The Thuggees are said to have avoided spilling blood to appease Kali so their chosen method of murder was to strangle their victims with a yellow rumal/cummerbund (handkerchief) and then bury the body. A substantial portion of their loot was donated to temples. Often the killing would take place at camp side, when the victim was busy or tired. While two or three Thuggees would do the actual killing, the rest would make music or loud noises to hush up any cry for help.
3. Patience was their virtue
There were complex omens and rituals behind the Thuggee murders, which meant that sometimes they accompanied their victims for many miles before finally killing them. Of course, sometimes this patience was necessary to ensure that the killing occurred at a convenient time/place or, in cases of large caravans, gave the Thugs the time to join the caravan in small groups so as to avoid suspicion.
4. Strength in numbers
Some of the Thuggee gangs were as big as 200 killers travelling together. Usually membership was passed from fathers to sons (women remained in the dark about these activities) but if someone was really eager to join, he could try and find a guru amongst the Thugs who’d teach him the ways of the cult. Thugs also spared children of their victims, so these children grew up to become Thugs too. There was a stress on secrecy and brotherhood, which helped maintain loyalty amongst the members.
5. An alternate history
This cult believed that they were entrusted this task of killing by the Goddess Kali. According to them, Kali once fought a demon, Raktabija, who would devour humans as soon as they were created. Though she fought hard, every drop of the demon’s blood that fell on the ground created another demon. Tired, Kali then created two human men from her sweat and armed them with rumals, telling them to strangle all the demons. After they obliged, Kali told them to keep the rumals in their family and destroy every man who was not one of them.
6. A well-oiled PR machine
The Thuggees were regarded as having a sacred mission by many non-Thuggees as well. Due to this belief, before the British drive to exterminate the group, Thugs were usually not hunted by authorities. Even as the British struggled to hunt them down, they found little help from the locals due to their fears and superstitions about the cult. In Ziau-d din Barni’s History of Firoz Shah (written around 1356) there is the description of an incident wherein a group of about a thousand Thugs were caught in Delhi but instead of being killed, were sent by boats to Lakhnauti.
7. The man with the numbers
Thug Behram, a Thuggee leader, is often regarded as the most prolific serial killer in the world as his death toll swings from 125 (his personal handiwork) to 931 (murders where he was present). He also modified his method of killing by sewing a heavy medallion in his cummerbund, so that killing would be easier. Once caught, Behram turned King’s Evidence and gave information on his group members. He, therefore, was spared being put on trial for his acts.
8. No adaptation = no survival
Some of the beliefs of the Thuggees finally ended up working against them. As per tradition, they did not kill women, fakirs, musicians, lepers and Europeans. This last fact was a real blessing for the British because despite having a great many opportunities to strike down the foreigners, the Thugs usually left them alone. This allowed the British to gain and consolidate knowledge of Thuggee activities and then act upon it.
9. The White man’s burden
Seeing the local support for the cult, the British established the Thuggee and Dacoity Department, and set up special tribunals that did not let any local influence affect criminal proceedings. Credit for that goes to the tireless efforts of William Sleeman, a Bengal Army officer who transferred to Civil Service to carry out his personal mission against the Thugs. Once he became District Magistrate, Sleeman really turned up the heat and managed to arrest many Thuggees, an act for which he was regarded as a hero by many. By the end of the 19th century, the British declared the Thuggee cult extinct.
10. The right to remain silent? Ha!
One of the reasons that the British dealt with the Thugs fairly easily was that, once caught, they were extremely cooperative. They quickly confessed to their crimes and also gave up other members of their group. Some believe that this was due to the fact that they thought that Kali had let them be captured because she was unhappy with their performance, while others suggest that the Thugs often gave the names of innocent people as group members to continue killing – albeit indirectly.
11. The End?
Some people insist that the British did not manage to finish the notorious gang. Instead, they merely went deeper underground. The reason for this belief is that the Thuggee cult managed to last over centuries, tear aside religious and social distinctions, infiltrate Indian society at all levels, and garner local support or fear. While the word Thuggee is no longer regarded with horror, rumours of their hands being behind the disappearance of travellers are still whispered in rural areas. So, if one day someone approaches you on a lonely roadside with a yellow handkerchief on his person, you’d be wise to think carefully about your next move.