Thuggees were an organized gang of professional assassins who operated from the 13th to the 19th centuries in India. The term Thuggee is derived from Hindi word ṭhug (ठग), and Sanskrit word sthaga which means Theif, deceivers, concealment and fraudulent. Sometimes described as the world’s first mafia, Thugs were Hindu and Muslim whose Thuggee cult was based on the worship of goddess, Kali.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Thuggees were responsible for approximately two million deaths, however estimations vary widely since there is no reliable source to confirm when the practice first began. The first known record of the Thugs as an organized group, as opposed to ordinary thieves, is in Ẓiyāʾ-ud-Dīn Baranī’s History of Fīrūz Shāh dated to around 1356. Although the Thugs traced their origin to seven Muslim tribes, Hindus also appear to have been associated with them from an early period.
Thugs traveled throughout India in gangs of 10 to 200 members, all dressed in various guises. They targeted travelers, especially wealthy travelers; gaining the confidence of their soon to be victims. When a favorable opportunity arose, Thugs strangled their victims with a Rumal (handkerchief) or noose around the victim’s neck. Once the victim was dead, the Thugs then plundered his belongings and buried the body.
Their crimes involved a high degree of teamwork and co-ordination both during the infiltration phase and at the moment of attack. Each member had a well-honed specialty; some distracted their quarry, some made noise or music to mask any cries, while others guarded the campsite from intruders and escapees. Thugs of the highest rank performed the actual killings. Thugs who were too old or infirm to perform the travel and ritual attacks on travelers, served as guides, spies, supply providers and more. It was a matter of honor for the Thugs to let no one escape alive once they had been selected for death. Membership to the fraternity of Thuggees was often through hereditary lines, passed down from father to son, with the women of the home being kept unaware of the men’s cult activity. Others trained with a guru, similar to an apprenticeship, or tried to align themselves with other Thugs in the hope of being recruited. Sometimes the children of travellers who were killed were groomed to become Thugs themselves, as the presence of children would help allay suspicion. Because of the closeness, secrecy and discipline of the Thug organization, they were rarely if ever, suspected of any wrongdoings. They were recognized by many as normal law abiding citizens and went unmolested for centuries. However, there were average persons, especially travelers, who were well aware of the dangers presented by the strange Thugs.
There is evidence, however, that all Thuggee assassins were united by common superstitions and rituals, which led to the gang being branded a cult or sect. The Thugs were a very close fraternity and used special jargon (ramasi) and hand signs to communicate with each other. Such secret communication methods allowed fellow Thugs to recognize each other in the furthest, most remote parts of India. They were also bound by a set of rules, such as the prohibition to steal a person’s property without killing them in accordance with ritual first. Brahmans were not killed because of their purity, killing of the sick was considered an unworthy sacrifice, and women were not killed because they were considered to be incarnations of Kali.
For the members of Thuggee, murder was both a way of life and a religious duty and they considered themselves to be holy and honorable men. They believed their killings were a means of worshiping the Hindu goddess Kali. Kali is believed to be the destroyer of evil spirits and the preserver of devotees. Kali is Goddess of life, death, and rebirth. She is the Dark Mother who creates and destroys.
To the members of the Thuggee cult, she was something else entirely. Their Kali craved human blood, and demanded endless sacrifice to satisfy her hunger. According to Thuggee legend, Kali once battled a terrible demon which roamed the land, devouring humans as fast as they were created. But every drop of the monster’s blood that touched the ground spawned a new demon, until the exhausted Kali finally created two human men, armed with rumals, and instructed them to strangle the demons. When their work was finished, Kali instructed them to keep the rumals in their family and use them to destroy every man not of their kindred. This was the tale told to Thuggee initiates.
The Thuggee assassins were eventually suppressed by the British rulers of India in the 1830s, after the implementation of the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts.