India’s Infamous Thuggee Cult


Image: LACMA

Calling on Kali: Hindu goddess of destruction but also of time and change. The Goddess Kali, by Richard B. Godfrey, 1770 print.

Again, though, Thuggee slips the noose of easy comparison, as religious belief gives it the dimension of a cult no normal wise guy would sign up to. These mass-assassins didn’t just kill for booty pure and simple; they worshipped Kali, the Hindu goddess associated with death and destruction, hinting wickedly at a sacrificial aspect to their killings. The fact that some Thugs were Muslims complicates the issue; but that Thuggee may have had some of its own special superstitions and rituals serves to make it still more sensationally sect-like.

Image: Luke Matt

“Maaro maaro sooar ko…” (“Kill, kill, kill the pig…”): Mola Ram. From Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

So just how wide of the mark was Indiana Jones with bone-wearing, still beating heart-removing Thug high priest Mola Ram? Probably about as wide as the ravine the incantation-chanting baddie falls to his death in – though no one can be sure of much in all this skull-thuggery.

It was self-styled Thug-hunter and super sleuth William Sleeman who first tried to get to the bottom of the Thuggee matter, even as he was busy stamping it out. When the self-imposed British rule decided to get rid of the Thugs in the 1830s, despite no attacks on British travelers, Sleeman was appointed to lead the clean-up act. Armed with a stiff upper lip and trailblazing new detective methods, he carefully mapped Thug activities, predicted their attacks, and aided by informants rounded up the whole rascal lot of them.



Kicking Thuggee ass and taking Thuggee names: Major William Sleeman. Photo of William Henry Sleeman, 19th Century.

Sleeman was responsible for the imprisonment, transportation or hanging of thousands of men, though recent writers have criticised the legitimacy of the campaign. Some say it was a witch-hunt – an excuse for the British to go swashbuckling around India – or at least a spin on the stereotype of the fantastically fanatical native criminal. Colonial myths are riddled with contradictions about how widespread Thuggee was among Indian people; but a story that grabs you by the throat like this one just seems too good to be false.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6