The Thugs of India

Stranglers from the Thuggee sect in Aurangabad prison, 1873

De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

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.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Thugs of India." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 28). The Thugs of India. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Thugs of India." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 15, 2021).