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The Thugs of Central India: A Bygone Era That Looks Romantic Now

MG is an air warrior and a global traveler well as an amateur astrologer who loves to visit and explore new places.



A Thug is defined as a violent person who may harm other people. Thuggee refers to the acts of the Thugs, who were organized gangs of professional robbers and murderers. Thuggee is a criminal cult associated with a religious order in Central India during the period 1600-1800. In real terms, Thugs were gangs of highway robbers that waylaid travelers passing through their areas of influence. The travelers were not only robbed but also murdered in a ritualistic manner. This was the period when the Moguls ruled India and they could do precious little to suppress this criminal activity. Probably they made no concerted effort to stop this activity. Thus this Thuggery or Thuggee survived for nearly 200 years, till it was eradicated by the British who took over as the paramount power in India from the Mughals.


The thugs

The thugs were in the face of it normal citizens. Their modus operandi consisted of befriending travelers who passed through their areas. After they had gained the confidence of the travelers they would murder them by strangulation and rob them of their valuables. The murdered men were buried in deep wells or pits and the robbers would then revert to their normal life and vocation. The method of killing the victims was by strangulation with a short piece of cloth called a ‘rumal’, which was carried attached to a cloth belt.

The Thugs ruled the roost for well nigh 200 years and mostly professed the Hindu religion. They worshipped the Goddess ‘Kali’ who is an important Goddess in the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. They often referred to the Goddess Kali as ‘Bhuvani’ and took part in elaborate rituals of worshipping the Goddess. The thugs believed that the Goddess blessed their acts of murder and robbery. During this period many hundreds of travelers were perhaps murdered and robbed.

The thugs were a closely-knit family. Outwardly nobody knew that they practiced this criminal activity. They also initiated their children in this ritualistic killing which was done by strangulation. They rarely spilled blood. Though it is hard to believe, yet the thugs did have an honor code of conduct which they followed strictly. It has been reported that they never killed children and women.

Thuggery reached gigantic proportions and the Indian rulers just allowed it to exist. In those days traveling in India was a nightmare and often a traveler leaving home was not sure of his coming back. The majority of the Thugs were Hindus, yet it was not uncommon for Muslims also to take to Thuggee.

At the turn of the 19th century with the collapse of the Mughul rule the cult of Thuggee spread to places as far as South India. This was the time when two British officers who were in India came to know about this cult and decided to eradicate it.

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Demise of the cult

The two English men were Captain William Sleeman, and Francis Curwen Smith. William Sleeman was an Army officer of the British Indian army while Francis was a magistrate. Both these men made a concerted plan to eradicate thuggery and roamed the roads of central and northern India in disguise to identify the gang members. It was a daredevil act but they had a garrison of soldiers always on call nearby. Captain Sleeman lead from the front and by his interaction with the thugs was able to get a clear picture of what was going on and he had no qualms in making up his mind that this call must be eliminated.

Their efforts bore fruit and nearly 500 thugs were identified, tried, and hanged as common murderers. It helped that a magistrate was along with Sleeman who conducted the trials in a swift manner but give ample chance to the Thugs to present their viewpoint. A reading of books of that period brings out the fact that the thugs lived an opulent life and enriched themselves with lakhs of rupees and gold coins.

Last word

The Thugs who believed that their cult would last forever as it had the blessing of the Goddess Kali ceased to exist in just about a decade. The Raj certainly was beneficial in this aspect as Thuggery was wiped out and peace restored in a turbulent area. It is a positive achievement of the Raj.

Bollywood with Aamir Khan gave a romantic tinge to Thugeree with the film " Thugs of Hindustan" but the film bombed at the box office.

Further reading

Thug: The True Story of India's Murderous Cult- by Mike Das (2005) Amazon

Confessions of a Thug-Paperback- by Philip Meadows Taylor (2001). Amazon

The Thugs or Phansigars of India- By Captain W. H. Sleeman, Superintendent of Thug Police. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart 1839

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