‘Thuggee’ refers to the acts of ‘Thugs,’ who were, organised gangs of professional robbers and murderers. The English word thug traces its roots to the Hindi word thug, which means ‘swindler’ or ‘deceiver’. Related words are its verbs thugna ‘to deceive,’ from the Sanskrit स्थग ‘sthaga’ ‘cunning, sly or fraudulent.’ The term ‘Thugee’ describes murder and robbery of travellers, which was popular in the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent.
Thugs are said to have travelled in groups across the Indian subcontinent. There were numerous traditions about their origin. One recorded by D.F. McLeod traced it to some Muslim tribes formed from those who fled Delhi after murdering a physician. Another traced it to some great Muslim families who fled after murdering a favourite slave of Akbar. These, original Muslim thugs’ spread, thuggee, amongst Rajputs, Hindus, Lodhis and Ahirs. According to some other traditions, thugs were Kanjars or they descended from those, who worked in Mughal camps. Others have blamed the rise of thugs on the disbanding of armies in employment of Indian rulers after the British conquest. Thugs are said to have operated as gangs of highway robbers, tricking and later strangling their victims.
To take advantage of their victims, the thugs would join travellers and first gain their confidence. This would allow them to surprise and strangle the travellers with a handkerchief or a noose later. They would then rob and bury the victims. This led to the thugs being called Phansigar (person killing with a noose). During the 1830s, thugs were targeted for eradication by the then Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck, and his chief captain, William Henry Sleeman.
Thugs resembled travellers in physicality. Initially they wore turbans and carried with them some kind of baggage. Their attire as travellers, would deceive, any peasant and royal alike.
The methods used in ‘Thuggee’ were meant to reap maximum loot without being caught. They did not accost travellers unless their own numbers were greater than the target. They first flattered the travellers they met, and that gave them a chance to assess, what wealth they were carrying. Many thugs avoided committing thuggee close to their native. So that their crimes were difficult to discover. They often pretended to be either Hindu or Muslim to fool their victims.
They usually attacked in the evening. A common method used by them was to distract their targets while attempting to strangle them from behind. In order to avoid any suspicion, they avoided carrying more than a few swords for self-defense. Sometimes they even mutilated corpses of their victims to avoid detection. The corpses were then hidden or buried.
The leader of a gang was called jamadar. Usage of military-style ranks such as jamadar and subedar among thugs, suggests, that the organisation of their gangs had a military construct. They used a secret language known as ‘Ramasee’ to disguise their real intentions from their targets. Although strangulation was one of their most-recognised methods of murder, they also used blades and poison.
The thugs comprised, both men, who had inherited thuggee as a family vocation, as well as those, who were forced to turn to it out of necessity. The leadership of many of the groups tended to be hereditary with family members sometimes serving together in the same band. Such thugs were known as aseel. Many thugs, insisted, that novices were not taught thuggee, by their own family members but by others who were often more skilled and experienced. They were called a guru. Thugs usually kept their acts a secret. Female thugs also existed and were called baronee in the secret language Ramasee, while an important male thug was called baroo.
They would often avoid, killing children of victims, and instead they would adopt them. At times they tended to murder women and children to eliminate witnesses or in case they had substantial loot. Some of the thugs avoided murdering victims they considered proscribed according to their beliefs and let other unscrupulous members commit the murder.
It is on record that during the 14th century 1,000 thugs were captured and hanged in the streets of Delhi. And, 200 years later Sher Shah Suri organised a cavalry of 1,200 men to keep them at bay. Akbar and his successors also launched widespread drives against the thugs, though it was only in the 19th century that Sir W. H. Sleeman succeeded in wiping them out after a relentless operation lasting seven years.
The earliest known reference to the Thugs as a band or fraternity, rather than ordinary thieves, is found in Zia-ud din Barni’s History of Firoz Shah written around 1356. He narrated an incident of sultan Jalal-ud-din Khalji, having 1,000 arrested thugs, being sent to Lakhnauti or Gaur:
Surdas, in his allegorical couplet, mentioned robbers called “thugs” who lured a victim, while also, killing and looting his property. The Janamsakhis, the legendary biographies of Guru Nanak, used the term thug to refer to a robber who used to lure pilgrims. Jean de Thevenot, a French traveller in his account referred to a band of robbers who used a “certain Slip with a running noose” to strangle their victims. John Fryer an English doctor and Fellow of the Royal Society, mentions, a similar method of strangling used by robbers from Surat whom he saw being given capital punishment by the Mughals in 1675. He further mentions that three out of them were relatives, which Kim Wagner a Danish-British historian notices, is similar to the thugs, who were thought to have engaged in this as a family profession. A decree issued by Aurangzeb in 1672 refers to a similar method and uses the term “Phansigar”.
The garrotte (killing by strangulation) is often depicted as a weapon of the thuggee. Other evidences suggest that the Katar (dagger) was their personal status weapon. A thuggee wore this weapon proudly across his chest. Early references to thugs reported they committed their strangulation murders with nooses of rope or catgut, but later they adopted the use of a length of cloth that could be used as a sash or scarf, and thus more easily concealed. This cloth is sometimes described as a rumal (head covering or kerchief), translated as “yellow scarf”; “yellow”, in this case, may refer to a natural cream or khaki colour rather than bright yellow.
Thugs preference for strangulation might have originated from a quirk of the law under the Mughal Empire that ruled most of India from the 1500s. For a murderer to be sentenced to death, he or she must have shed the blood of their victim. Those who murdered but did not shed blood might face imprisonment, hard labour and paying a penalty—but they would not risk execution.
A poison called Datura, derived from a plant in the Nightshade family, was sometimes used by thugs to induce drowsiness or stupefaction, making strangulation easier.
The “River Thugs” preyed upon people including Hindu pilgrims, travelling through the Ganga River, and became, mostly active during the winter like their compatriots from Murena, Bundelkhand and Awadh. Their dialect of Ramasee differed from the one used by their compatriots on land and used boats taken on lease from their builders or from a jamadar called Khuruck Baboo. Sleeman states that they tapped three times to give the signal to murder, which they always committed during the day. To avoid detection of a corpse, they broke its back and threw it in the river to be eaten by crocodiles and only looted money or jewels.
By the 1870s the ‘thug cult’ was essentially extinct, but the history of thuggee led to the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) of 1871. Although the CTA was repealed upon Indian independence, tribes considered criminals still exist in India. The Thuggee and Dacoity Department remained in existence until 1904, when it was replaced by the central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID).
There are many movies that have been made by Bollywood on thuggee, such as Gunga Din in 1939, Sunghursh in 1968 and Thugs of Hindostan to name a few.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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