Image: Harappa

Group of Thugs, 1863, photographer unknown.

They were evil incarnate in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – which was briefly banned in India for alleged racism. Their name is the root of the modern English word ‘thug’. And a few centuries ago these bad boys were responsible for the mass murder of tens of thousands of travelers. Here’s a look behind the myth at India’s mystery-shrouded Thuggee cult: bands of roving stranglers who robbed and killed many folks making their way unwittingly across the sub-continent.

History is quick to point out what nasty pieces of work these Thuggee types were; they’re even in the Guinness Book of Records, with over two million kills attributed to their deadly hands. There have been stacks of Western attempts to make sense of the phenomenon: pirates of the plains, brigands of Bengal – but buccaneer and bandit likenesses like these don’t do justice to the singularly sinister way in which the original Thugs went about their business.

Image: ebay antiques

Preying in pilgrims’ routes: many an unwary traveler got waylaid or worse. Ganges River at Haridwar landscape etching, 1858.

By appearing to be friendly fellow travelers, these deviously depicted devils would join and infiltrate the caravans people traveled in for safety. They often did so gradually over the course of long journeys, the less to arouse suspicion. Then, when they held a numerical or strategic advantage over their quarry, and were sure there was no escape, they would ruthlessly attack at a prearranged signal.

Equally crafty with their killing techniques, the Thugs garrotted their victims with a cloth handkerchief known as a rumal. This was so as not to shed blood – which would have been not only conspicuous but sacrilegious. They also killed under the cover of darkness and a sonic screen such as noise or music, before systematically disposing of the bodies in concealed burial sites.


Image: Columbia edu

Representations of thuggery: “Hindoo Thugs and Poisoners”. Drawing by W Cafester, Illustrated London News, 1857.

The extremely well organised character of their operation has led to the Thugs being described as a Mafia-esque criminal outfit. Thuggee incorporated different specialist roles into a loosely hierarchical structure. On the job there were equivalents to modern day figures like ‘hitmen’ and ‘lookouts’, and above these was the gang leader or boss in the shape of the jemadar.

Like La Cosa Nostra, Thuggee tended to be kept in the family, bonded together by a strong code of silence. And while some members may have been recruited from outside as comrades or apprentices – including the lucky spared children of victims – it seems that generally the mantle of Thugdom was passed down through the generations.