India’s Infamous Thuggee Cult

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.

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.

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.


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