Among the most notorious secret societies in history, the Thugs practiced a combination of human sacrifice and highway robbery on the roads and byways of India. Bands of Thugs, 10 to 50 in number, roamed the country and lured unsuspecting travelers to journey with them. At traditional killing grounds known only to the Thugs, they turned on their hapless companions, strangled them, robbed them, and buried their mutilated bodies in concealed graves. The term “Thug” was their common name in northern India, and means “deceiver;” in southern India they were known as Phansigari, “stranglers.” When Thuggee was at its height at the beginning of the nineteenth century, tens of thousands of travelers met this fate annually in every corner of the Indian subcontinent.
The origins of Thuggee are unknown. Sir William Sleeman, the British colonial official responsible for its eradication, speculated that the Thugs might have descended from members of the Sagartii, a Persian tribe described by the Greek historian Herodotus, whose members fought armed with a dagger and a leather noose. The Thugs themselves believed that they had been created by Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, during a battle against a mighty demon. When the goddess cut down the demon, more demons sprang up from its spilled blood. Kali then created the first two Thugs from the sweat on her arms, gave them strangling cloths, and sent them to kill all the demons without shedding their blood. The Thugs quickly dispatched the demons, and the goddess rewarded them by commanding them to kill and rob travelers as a sacred and profitable way of supporting themselves and their families.
Whatever their origins, the Thugs were active in India by the Middle Ages. Held at bay by the Mughal Empire at its height in the sixteenth century, they became widespread again as the Empire declined into chaos. Traditional laws ordered captured Thugs to be walled up inside pillars and left to die, or for their hands and nose to be cut off, but in many areas local rajas permitted the Thugs to operate in exchange for a share of the profits.
The Thugs themselves perfected the arts of deception in order to catch travelers off their guard. They had their own language, Ramasi, and secret gestures that allowed them to signal one another unnoticed. When not on the roads, they lived as ordinary peasants, and married only into one another’s families. Strict taboos governed their killing expeditions; a sheep had to be sacrificed to Kali before the band set out, band leaders paid close attention to omens, and women and members of certain crafts and castes were not to be killed. When they struck, an absolute rule required that the only witnesses left alive be Thugs, so entire parties of travelers escaped death because one person the Thugs were forbidden to kill traveled with them.
As British rule over India spread out from coastal enclaves at the beginning of the nineteenth century, colonial administrators gradually became aware that something other than ordinary banditry was taking place on the roads. An 1816 article by Richard Sherwood, “Of the Murderers called Phansigars,” helped catalyze a response. William Sleeman, then a young officer in the Bengal army, read Sherwood’s paper, transferred to the civil service, and began investigating Thug activities. His discoveries pointed to the existence of a nationwide Thug organization and caused a furor in India and Britain alike. In 1830, after further investigations, he was appointed by the Governor-General to suppress Thuggee throughout central India.
Sleeman’s campaign was made simpler by his ability to find informers among the Thugs, who were offered pardons in exchange for telling all they knew, and his efforts to establish schools for the children of Thugs to teach them less bloodthirsty trades. Thug families became particularly famous for carpet weaving; the magnificent carpet of the Waterloo Chamber of Windsor Palace, measuring 80 feet by 40 (24 meters by 12) and weighing two tons, was commissioned by Queen Victoria and manufactured for her by former Thugs. By 1850, pressed on all sides by British colonial authority, Thuggee was effectively extinct.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006