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Group of Thugs.gif
Group of Thugs ca. 1894
Founded Before 1356
Named after Hindi word for thief
Founding location Central India
Years active At least 450 years
Territory India
Ethnicity Indian
Criminal activities Murder, robbery

Thuggee or tuggee (Hindi: Nepali ठग्गी ṭhagī; Urdu: ٹھگ‎; Sanskrit: sthaga; Sindhi: ٺوڳي، ٺڳ; Kannada: "ಠಕ್ಕ" (Thakka)) refers to the acts of Thugs, an organized gang of professional assassins.

The Thugs travelled in groups across India for six hundred years.[1] Although the Thugs traced their origin to seven Muslim tribes, Hindus appear to have been associated with them at an early period.

They were first mentioned in Ẓiyāʾ-ud-Dīn Baranī's History of Fīrūz Shāh dated around 1356.[2] In the 1830s they were targeted for eradication by William Bentinck and his chief captain William Henry Sleeman. They were seemingly destroyed by this effort.[1][3]

The Thugs would join travelers and gain their confidence. This would allow them to then surprise and strangle their victims by pulling a handkerchief or noose tight around their necks. They would then rob their victims of valuables and bury their bodies. This led them to also be called Phansigar (English: using a noose), a term more commonly used in southern India.[4]

The term Thuggee is derived from Hindi word ठग, or ṭhag, which means "thief". Related words are the verb thugna, "to deceive", from Sanskrit स्थग sthaga "cunning, sly, fraudulent", from स्थगति sthagati "he conceals".[5] This term for a particular kind of murder and robbery of travellers is popular in South Asia and particularly in India.

The story of Thuggee was popularised by books such as Philip Meadows Taylor's novel Confessions of a Thug, 1839, leading to the word "thug" entering the English language. In his 1897 travelogue Following the Equator Mark Twain devotes two chapters to the Thugs and how they operated.


Origin and recruitment[edit]

The earliest currently known recorded mention of the Thugs as a special band or fraternity, rather than as ordinary thieves, is found in the following passage of Ziau-d din Barni's History of Firoz Shah (written about 1356):

In the reign of that sultan (about 1290), some Thugs were taken in Delhi, and a man belonging to that fraternity was the means of about a thousand being captured. But not one of these did the sultan have killed. He gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the lower country, to the neighbourhood of Lakhnauti,[disambiguation needed] where they were to be set free. The Thugs would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti and would not trouble the neighbourhood of Delhi any more.

—Sir HM Elliot, History of India, iii. 141.

Membership was sometimes passed from father to son, in what would now be termed a criminal underclass. The leaders of long-established Thug groups tended to come from these hereditary lines, as the gang developed into a criminal 'tribe'. Other men would get to know a Thug band and would hope to be recruited, in the way that one might aspire to join an elite regiment or university: they were the best operators in "the business" and, like a regiment or college fraternity, once in the group, there was a camaraderie of numbers and shared experience. The robbery became less a question of solving problems of poverty and more a profession, like soldiering.

Sometimes the young children of the travellers would be spared and groomed to become Thugs themselves, as the presence of children would help allay suspicion. A fourth way of becoming a Thug was by training with a guru, similar to an apprenticeship for a guild or profession, during which the candidate could be assessed for reliability, courage, discretion and discipline.[6]

Modus operandi[edit]

Modes of Operation

Watercolour by an unknown artist from the early 19th century purporting to show three Thugs in the process of strangling the traveller: one holds the feet, another the hands, while a third tightens the ligature around the neck.
A sketch by the same artist purporting to show a group of Thugs stabbing the eyes of three travellers they have recently strangled, preparatory to further mutilation and deposition in the well.

The modus operandi was to join a caravan and become accepted as bona-fide travellers themselves. The Thugs would need to delay any attack until their fellow travellers had dropped the initial wariness of the newcomers and had been lulled into a false sense of security, gaining their trust. Once the travellers had allowed the Thugs to join them and disperse amongst them - a task which might sometimes, depending on the size of the target group, require accompaniment for hundreds of miles - the Thugs would wait for a suitable place and time before killing and robbing them.

There were obviously variations on this theme. When tackling a large group, a Thuggee band might disperse along a route and join a group in stages, concealing their acquaintanceship, such that they could come to outnumber their intended victims by small, non-threatening increments. If the travellers had doubts about any one party, they might confide their worries to another party of the same Thuggee band. The trusted band would thus be the best placed to deal with these members of the caravan at the appropriate time, but might also be able to advise their colleagues to 'back off' or otherwise modify their behavior, to allay suspicion.

The killing place would need to be remote from local observers and suitable to prevent escape (e.g., backed against a river). Thugs tended to develop favored places of execution, called beles. They knew the geography of these places well—better than their victims. They needed to, if they were to anticipate the likely escape routes and hiding-places of the quicker-witted and more determined of the travellers.

The timing might be at night or during a rest-break, when the travellers would be busy with chores and when the background cries and noise would mask any sounds of alarm. A quick and quiet method, which left no stains and required no special weapons, was strangulation. This method is particularly associated with Thuggee and led to the Thugs also being referred to as the Phansigars, or "noose-operators", and simply as "stranglers" by British troops. Usually two or three Thugs would strangle one traveller. The Thugs would then need to dispose of the bodies: they might bury them or might throw them into a nearby well.[6]

The leader of a gang was called the 'Jemadar'. (This is an ordinary Indian word, and was formerly one rank of junior commissioned officer in several armies in the subcontinent. However, since it also came to be used for sweepers (scavengers), that rank was renamed Naib Subedar. 'Naib' is Arabic for 'Deputy or Authorized Representative' and 'Subedar' is an Indian word for a rank of junior military officer; the two words together means 'Official Authority Agent'.)

As with modern criminal gangs, each member of the group had his own function: the equivalent of the 'hit-man,' 'the lookout,' and the 'getaway driver' would be those Thugs tasked with luring travellers with charming words or acting as guardian to prevent escape of victims while the killing took place.

They usually killed their victims in darkness while the Thugs made music or noise to escape discovery. If burying bodies close to a well-travelled trade-route, they would need to disguise the 'earthworks' of their graveyard as a camp-site, tamping down the covering mounds and leaving some items of rubbish or remnants of a fire to 'explain' the disturbances and obscure the burials.

One reason given for the Thuggee success in avoiding detection and capture so often and over such long periods of time is a self-discipline and restraint in avoiding groups of travellers on shorter journeys, even if they seemed laden with suitable plunder. Choosing only travellers far from home gave more time until the alarm was raised and the distance made it less likely that colleagues would follow on to investigate the disappearances. Another reason given is the high degree of teamwork and co-ordination both during the infiltration phase and at the moment of attack.

Use of garotte[edit]

The garotte is often depicted as the common weapon of the Thuggee.[7][8] It is sometimes described as a Rumāl (head covering or kerchief), or translated as "yellow scarf". "Yellow" in this case may refer to a natural cream or khaki colour rather than bright yellow.

Most Indian males in Central India or Hindustan would have a puggaree or head-scarf, worn either as a turban or worn around a kullah and draped to protect the back of the neck. Types of scarves were also worn as cummerbunds, in place of a belt. Any of these items could have served as strangling ligatures. Behram, the most prolific killer among the Thuggee is known to have improvised his method of strangulation by sewing a large medallion into his cummerbund to possibly add weight to the cloth. The medallion he used has been identified as the Canova Medallion.

Death toll[edit]

Estimates of the total number of victims vary widely, since no reliable source confirms the length of the Thugs' existence. According to the Guinness Book of Records the Thuggee cult was responsible for approximately 2,000,000 deaths, while British historian Mike Dash states that they killed 50,000 persons in total over an estimated 150 years.[citation needed] According to other estimates the Thugs murdered 1 million people.[9]

Yearly figures for the early 19th century are better documented, but even they are inaccurate estimates. For example, gang leader Behram has often been considered the world's most prolific serial killer, blamed for 931 killings between 1790 and 1830. Reference to contemporary manuscript sources, however, shows that Behram actually gave inconsistent statements regarding the number of murders he had committed.[10]

While he did state that he had "been present at" 931 killings committed by his gang of 25 to 50 men, elsewhere he admitted that he had personally strangled around 125 people. Having turned King's Evidence and informing on his former companions, Behram never stood trial for any of the killings attributed to him, the total of which must thus remain a matter of dispute.[10]

British suppression[edit]

The Thuggee was suppressed by the British rulers of India in the 1830s.[6] The arrival of the British and their development of a methodology to tackle crime meant the techniques of the Thugs had met their match. Suddenly, the mysterious disappearances were mysteries no longer and it became clear how even large caravans could be infiltrated by apparently small groups, that were in fact acting in concert. Once the techniques were known to all travellers, the element of surprise was gone and the attacks became botched, until the hunters became the hunted.

Civil servant William Henry Sleeman, superintendent, 'Thuggee and Dacoity Dept.' in 1835, and later its Commissioner in 1839.

Reasons for success included:

  • the dissemination of reports regarding Thuggee developments across territorial borders, so that each administrator was made aware of new techniques as soon as they were put in practice, so that travellers could be warned and advised on possible counter-measures.
  • the use of King's evidence programmes gave an incentive for gang members to inform on their peers to save their own lives. This undermined the code of silence that protected members.
  • at a time when, even in Britain, policing was in its infancy, the British set up a dedicated police force, the Thuggee Department, and special tribunals that prevented local influence from affecting criminal proceedings.
  • the police force applied the new detective methods to record the locations of attacks, the time of day or circumstances of the attack, the size of group, the approach to the victims and the behaviours after the attacks. In this way, a single informant, belonging to one gang in one region, might yield details that would be applicable to most, or all, gangs in a region or indeed across all India.

The initiative of suppression was due largely to the efforts of the civil servant William Sleeman, who captured "Feringhea" (also called Syeed Amir Ali, on whom the novel Confessions of a Thug is based) and got him to turn King's evidence. He took Sleeman to a grave with a hundred bodies, told him the circumstances of the killings, and named the Thugs who had done it.[11]

After initial investigations confirmed what Feringhea had said, Sleeman started an extensive campaign involving profiling and intelligence. A police organisation known as the Thuggee and Dacoity Department was established within the Government of India, with William Sleeman appointed Superintendent of the department in 1835. Thousands of men were either put in prison, executed, or expelled from British India.[6]

The campaign was heavily based on informants recruited from captured Thugs who were offered protection on the condition that they told everything that they knew. By the 1870s, the Thug cult was extinct, but it led to the promulgation of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Although it was repealed upon independence of India, the concept of criminal tribes and criminal castes is still present in India.[12][13] The Department remained in existence until 1904, when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID).


The discovery of the Thuggee was one of the main reasons why the Criminal Tribes Act was created. Of a Government Report made in 1839 by Major Sleeman of the Indian Service, Mark Twain, in Following the Equator, wrote:[11]

There is one very striking thing which I wish to call attention to. You have surmised from the listed callings followed by the victims of the Thugs that nobody could travel the Indian roads unprotected and live to get through; that the Thugs respected no quality, no vocation, no religion, nobody; that they killed every unarmed man that came in their way. That is wholly true—with one reservation. In all the long file of Thug confessions an English traveller is mentioned but once—and this is what the Thug says of the circumstance:

"He was on his way from Mhow to Bombay. We studiously avoided him. He proceeded next morning with a number of travellers who had sought his protection, and they took the road to Baroda."

We do not know who he was; he flits across the page of this rusty old book and disappears in the obscurity beyond; but he is an impressive figure, moving through that valley of death serene and unafraid, clothed in the might of the English name.

We have now followed the big official book through, and we understand what Thuggee was, what a bloody terror it was, what a desolating scourge it was. In 1830 the English found this cancerous organization embedded in the vitals of the empire, doing its devastating work in secrecy, and assisted, protected, sheltered, and hidden by innumerable confederates —big and little native chiefs, customs officers, village officials, and native police, all ready to lie for it, and the mass of the people, through fear, persistently pretending to know nothing about its doings; and this condition of things had existed for generations, and was formidable with the sanctions of age and old custom. If ever there was an unpromising task, if ever there was a hopeless task in the world, surely it was offered here—the task of conquering Thuggee. But that little handful of English officials in India set their sturdy and confident grip upon it, and ripped it out, root and branch! How modest do Captain Vallancey's words sound now, when we read them again, knowing what we know:

"The day that sees this far-spread evil completely eradicated from India, and known only in name, will greatly tend to immortalize British rule in the East."

It would be hard to word a claim more modestly than that for this most noble work.
—Chapter xlvi, conclusion.

Thuggee viewpoint[edit]

Thuggee trace their origin to the battle of Kali against Raktabija; however, their foundation myth departs from Brahminical versions of the Puranas. Thuggee consider themselves to be children of Kali, created out of her sweat. This particular point is also one of the clear disconnects in the story built on the Thuggees. While only Hindus worship Kali, a large number of the Thuggees captured and convicted by the British were Muslims.[14]

According to some sources,[which?] especially old colonial sources, Thuggee believed they had a positive role, saving humans' lives. Without Thuggee's sacred service, Kali might destroy all the human kind:

  • "It is God who kills, but Bhowanee has name for it."
  • "God is all in all, for good and evil."
  • "God has appointed blood for her (Bhowanee) food, saying 'khoon tum khao', feed thou upon blood. In my opinion it is very bad, but what she can do, being ordered to subsist upon blood!"
  • "Bhowanee is happy and more so in proportion to the blood that is shed."[15]

In contrast, Dash states that they did not have a religious motive to kill and that the colonial sources were wrong and prejudiced in that respect.

21st century revisionist views[edit]

In her book The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India (2002), Martine van Wœrkens suggests that evidence for the existence of a Thuggee cult in the 19th century was in part the product of "colonial imaginings"—British fear of the little-known interior of India and limited understanding of the religious and social practices of its inhabitants. For a comparison, see Juggernaut and the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Krishna Dutta, while reviewing Mike Dash's Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult in The Independent, argues:[16]

In recent years, the revisionist view that Thuggee was a British invention, a means to tighten their hold in the country, has been given credence in India, France and the US, but this well-researched book objectively questions that assertion.

In his book, Dash rejects scepticism about the existence of a secret network of groups with a modus operandi that was different from highwaymen, such as dacoits. To prove his point Dash refers to the excavated corpses in graves, of which the hidden locations were revealed to Sleeman's team by Thug informants. In addition, Dash treats the extensive and thorough documentation that Sleeman made. Dash rejects the colonial emphasis on the religious motivation for robbing, but instead asserts that monetary gain was the main motivation for Thuggee and that men sometimes became Thugs due to extreme poverty. He further asserts that the Thugs were highly superstitious and that they worshipped the Hindu goddess Kali, but that their faith was not very different from their contemporary non-Thugs. He admits, though, that the Thugs had certain group-specific superstitions and rituals.

In Popular culture[edit]

  • The story of Thuggee was popularised by books such as Philip Meadows Taylor's novel Confessions of a Thug, 1839, leading to the word "thug" entering the English language. Ameer Ali, the protagonist of Confessions of a Thug was said to be based on a real Thug called Syeed Amir Ali.
  • A chapter in Charles Mackay's Book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1841, covers the cult of the thugs.
  • One of the most famous uses of the Thuggee came from Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, and further popularized by its many film & television adaptations: travellers Phileas Fogg & Passepartout rescue a princess captured by the Thuggee and sentenced to burn to death in the funeral pyre with her deceased husband. (However, in the original novel, Thuggee are mentioned only briefly, and not directly in connection with this princess.)[17]
  • Italian novelist and Verne contemporary Emilio Salgari had the tiger hunter Tremal-Naik fight the rising Thuggee cult in The Mystery of the Black Jungle (1887/1895), and later had his most famous creation, the pirate Sandokan, battle them in the 1904 novel The Two Tigers, climaxing with a hand-to-hand duel with their leader.
  • The 19th-century American writer Mark Twain discusses the Thuggee fairly extensively in chapters 9 and 10 of Following the Equator: Volume II, 1897.
  • A non-fiction study of the movement is provided by George Bruce's The Stranglers: The cult of Thuggee and its overthrow in British India (1968).
  • The 1939 film, Gunga Din concerns three British sergeants and Gunga Din, their native water bearer, who fight the Thuggee in colonial British India.
  • John Masters' 1952 novel The Deceivers concerns the fight to suppress Thuggee, with a leading character partly based on William Sleeman. A 1988 film version was produced by Ismail Merchant, starring Pierce Brosnan.
  • The British horror studio, Hammer Films, produced The Stranglers of Bombay in 1959, dealing with the British East India Company's investigation of the Thuggee in the 1830s.
  • "Help!" the 1965 Beatles movie presents a parody of Thuggery and human sacrifice to the goddess 'Kaili'.
  • The 1968 Rolling Stones song "Sympathy for the Devil" alludes to Thuggery ("I laid traps for troubadours/Who get killed before they reach Bombay")
  • The 1968 children's book "The Boy Biggles" by Capt. W. E. Johns includes a story where the main character has a run-in with "Thugs" who attempt to murder him.
  • The 1968 Bollywood film Sangharsh, based on a story by Jnanpith Award winner, Mahasweta Devi, presented a fictionalised account of vendetta within a Thuggee cult in the holy Indian town of Varanasi.
  • The 1968 Hollywood film The Boston Strangler mentioned the Thugee in connection to a book in the library of one of the suspects.
  • George Macdonald Fraser's novel Flashman in the Great Game (1975) makes references to the "cult" of Thuggee, while the phrase "pass the tobacco" is used as a verbal signal for the killing to begin.
  • The 1984 Steven Spielberg film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is notable for Amrish Puri's role as a Thugee chieftain, who is shown chanting lines such as "maaro maaro sooar ko, chamdi nocho pee lo khoon" - literally "Kill, kill the pig, flay his skin, drink his blood".
  • The song "Assassing" from the neo-progressive rock group Marillion's Fugazi album (1984) features the line: ″who decorates the scarf with a fugi knot″, ′fugi′ being a scrambled version of ′thuggee′ and meaning the scarf-as-an-assassination-device of the Thuggee.
  • Dan Simmons's Song of Kali, 1985, features a Thuggee cult.
  • The DC Comics character Ravan is a Thuggee assassin (first appeared in 1987) who kills to delay the return of Kali. He is the enemy of Kobra who seeks to bring about her return.
  • In a 1995 episode of Highlander: The Series, "The Wrath of Kali", Duncan MacLeod deals with immortal Kamir (played by Indian actor Kabir Bedi), last of the Thuggee.
  • Glen Cook's Black Company series features a cult based loosely on the Thuggee, which plays a significant role in two books: Dreams of Steel (1990) and Bleak Seasons (1996).
  • Christopher Moore's 2002 novel, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, describes a Thuggee ritual.
  • In 2010 a well researched historical fiction novel Phansigar based on Sleeman's campaign against the Thuggee, written by Jo Nambiar was released by the Governor of Karnataka having been selected as an outstanding work about the Anglo-Indian Era of Indian history.
  • In Suzanne Enoch's 2010 historical romance novel A Lady's Guide to Improper Behavior, the protagonist is the sole survivor of a Thuggee massacre. He attempts to restore both his reputation and those of the men who died under his command against the self-serving libel of the East India Company.
  • Gujarati language thriller writer Harkisan Mehta has written a three-volume novel, Ameer Ali thug na pila rumal ni gaanth (The knot of the yellow handkerchief of Ameer Ali). The lead character was inspired by Syed Amir Ali.


  1. ^ a b "Tracing India's cult of Thugs". 3 August 2003. Los Angeles Times.
  2. ^
  3. ^[dead link][better source needed]
  4. ^ R.V. Russell; R.B.H. Lai (1995). The tribes and castes of the central provinces of India. Asian Educational Services. p. 559. ISBN 978-81-206-0833-7. Retrieved 19 April 2011. 
  5. ^ Thugs 1902 Encyclopædia Britannica'.Pali-sthag
  6. ^ a b c d Dash, Mike Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult ISBN 1-86207-604-9, 2005
  7. ^ Richard James Popplewell (1995). Intelligence and imperial defence: British intelligence and the defence of the Indian Empire, 1904-1924. Frank Cass. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-7146-4580-3. Retrieved 16 April 2011. 
  8. ^ Lois H. Gresh; Robert Weinberg (4 April 2008). Why Did It Have To Be Snakes: From Science to the Supernatural, The Many Mysteries of Indiana Jones. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 104–107. ISBN 978-0-470-22556-1. Retrieved 16 April 2011. 
  9. ^ "Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology and Identity", by Prem Chowdhry, p. 137
  10. ^ a b James Paton, 'Collections on Thuggee and Dacoitee', British Library Add. Mss. 41300
  11. ^ a b Twain, Mark; Produced by David Widger (18 August 2006). "Following the Equator" (ASCII). EBook. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 27 February 2011. "This file should be named 2895.txt or" 
  12. ^ "Thugs Traditional View" (shtml). BBC. Archived from the original on 17 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-17. 
  13. ^ Sinister sects: Thug, Mike Dash's investigation into the gangs who preyed on travellers in 19th-century India by Kevin Rushby, The Guardian, Saturday, 11 June 2005.
  14. ^ Brigitte Luchesi; Kocku von Stuckrad (2004). Religion im kulturellen Diskurs. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 623–624. ISBN 978-3-11-017790-9. Retrieved 20 April 2011. 
  15. ^ Martine van Wœrkens; Catherine Tihanyi (2002). The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India. University of Chicago Press. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-226-85086-3. Retrieved 19 April 2011. 
  16. ^ Dutta, Krishna (2005) "The sacred slaughterers. Book review of Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult by Mike Dash". In: The Independent (Published: 8 July 2005)text
  17. ^ Verne, Jules (18 August 2005). Around The World in Eighty Days.  See page 38, where the Thuggee chief is mentioned, and page 46, where the bride is referred to as a suttee.


  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Dash, Mike Thug: the true story of Indias murderous cult ISBN 1-86207-604-9, 2005
  • Dutta, Krishna (2005) The sacred slaughterers. Book review of Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult by Mike Dash. In The Independent (Published: 8 July 2005) text
  • Guidolin, Monica "Gli strangolatori di Kali. Il culto thag tra immaginario e realtà storica", Aurelia Edizioni, 2012, ISBN 978-88-89763-50-6.
  • Paton, James 'Collections on Thuggee and Dacoitee', British Library Add. Mss. 41300
  • Woerkens, Martine van The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India (2002),

External links[edit]