Humanities › History & Culture The Thugs of India Share Flipboard Email Print De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images History & Culture Asian History Figures & Events Basics Southeast Asia East Asia South Asia Middle East Central Asia Asian Wars and Battles American History African American History African History Ancient History and Culture European History Genealogy Inventions Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Kallie Szczepanski History Expert Ph.D., History, Boston University J.D., University of Washington School of Law B.A., History, Western Washington University Dr. Kallie Szczepanski is a history teacher specializing in Asian history and culture. She has taught at the high school and university levels in the U.S. and South Korea. our editorial process Kallie Szczepanski Updated October 26, 2019 The Thugs or Thuggees were organized gangs of criminals in India who preyed upon trade caravans and wealthy travelers. They operated like a secret society, reportedly often including otherwise respectable members of society. "Thug" Origin The leader of a Thuggee group was called a jemadar, a term that means essentially "boss-man." The word "Thug" comes from the Urdu thagi, which is taken from the Sanskrit sthaga meaning "scoundrel" or "cunning one." In southern India, the Thugs are also known as Phansigar, signifying "strangler" or "user of a garotte," after their favorite method of dispatching their victims. Thuggee History The Thugs may have come into existence as early as the 13th century. Thugs would meet travelers along the road and befriend them, sometimes camping and traveling with them for several days. When the time was right, the Thugs would strangle and rob their unsuspecting travel companions, burying the bodies of their victims in mass graves not far from the road, or throwing them down wells. Both Hindu and Muslim Thugs preyed upon travelers in what is now India and Pakistan through the 19th century. British colonial officials during the British Raj in India were horrified by the depredations of the Thugs, and set out to suppress the murderous cult. They set up a special police force specifically to hunt the Thugs, and publicized any information about Thuggee movements so that travelers would not be taken unawares. Thousands of accused Thugs were arrested. They would be executed hanging, jailed for life, or sent into exile. By 1870, most people believe that the Thugs had been destroyed. Bandits and Cultists Although members of the group came from both Hindu and Muslim backgrounds, and all different castes, they shared in the worship of the Hindu goddess of destruction and renewal, Kali. Murdered travelers were considered as offerings to the goddess. The killings were highly ritualized; the Thugs did not want to spill any blood, so they usually strangled their victims with a rope or a sash. A certain percentage of the stolen goods would also be donated to a temple or shrine honoring the goddess. Some men passed down the rituals and secrets of the Thugs to their sons. Other recruits would apprentice themselves to established Thug masters, or gurus, and learn the trade in that way. Occasionally, young children who were accompanying a victim would be adopted by the Thug clan and trained in the ways of the Thugs, as well. It is quite strange that some of the Thugs were Muslim, given the centrality of Kali in the cult. In the first place, murder is forbidden in the Quran, excepting only lawful executions: "Do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct... Whosoever kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind." Islam is also very strict about there being only one true God, so making human sacrifices to Kali is extremely un-Islamic.