No organized cult of killers has ever murdered as many people as the Thuggee. In the 1830s this Indian secret society strangled upward of 30,000 native people and travelers as a sacrifice to their goddess Kali, the "Dark Mother," the Hindu Triple Goddess of creation, preservation, and destruction. The name Thuggee comes from the Sanskrit sthaga, "deceiver."
Although the Thuggee probably originated sometime in the sixteenth century, they were not uncovered by British authorities until about 1812. Great Britain was beginning to expand its territories in India, and the British administrators were becoming increasingly alarmed by reports of bands of stranglers that were roving the countryside murdering travelers. At first there appeared to be no connection between the bizarre killings, but then the bodies of 50 victims were found hidden in a series of wells in the Ganges area. Such large-scale mass murder could not have been kept secret for so long unless special pains had been taken to dispose of the victims' corpses. Examination of the bodies revealed that the murderers had broken all joints of their victims' limbs to speed up the process of decomposition and to prevent the swelling of the graves that would attract scavenging jackals and other wild animals. Such evidence convinced the authorities that they were dealing with one secret society, the Thuggee.
The murderous craft of the Thuggee was hereditary. Its practitioners were trained from earliest childhood to murder by the quick, quiet method of a strong cloth noose tightened about the neck of their victims. This weapon, the "Rumal," was worn knotted about the waist of each member of the Thuggee.
The Thuggee gloried in silent and efficient acts of murder above any other earthly accomplishment, and they traveled often in the guise of traders, pilgrims, and even as soldiers marching to or from service. On occasion, the more flamboyant would pretend to be a rajah with a large retinue of followers. Each band of Thuggee had a small unit of scouts and inveiglers who would loiter about hotels and market places gaining information regarding travelers and the weight of their coin purses. The inveiglers posed as travelers headed for the same destination as their intended victims. They would worm themselves into the confidences of their prey, pleading the old adage of safety in numbers.
The mass slaughters of large groups of merchants and travelers were usually committed when all were encamped. Working in groups of three, one Thuggee would loop the Rumal around the victim's neck, another would press his head forward, and the third would grab his legs and throw him to the ground. In the rare instance when an intended victim escaped the nooses in the death area, he would run into scouts posted at the edge of the jungle. One hundred percent mortality of their victims was the goal of the Thuggee.
In spite of what first appeared to be indiscriminate murder on a very large scale, the Thuggee had a peculiar code of ethics whose rules forbade the killing of fakirs, musicians, dancers, sweepers, oil vendors, carpenters, blacksmiths, maimed or leprous persons, Ganges water-carriers, and women. Despite the restriction against the murder of females, however, the presence of wives traveling with their husbands often necessitated the strangling of a woman to protect the secrecy of the society.
The strongest rule of the brotherhood was the one prohibiting the shedding of blood. According to Thuggee beliefs, the goddess Kali taught the fathers of thuggery to strangle with a noose and to kill without permitting the flow of blood. All victims of the Thuggee were sacrificed to Kali, and the members of the secret society would have been greatly incensed by an accusation that they killed only for booty.
With the exception of a small number of boys who may have been captured or spared during a raid, a man had to be born into the cult in order to become an initiate. The minimum age for initiation into the society was 10, and the young candidates were allowed to watch their elders at work from hidden points some distance from the site of the attack. At the age of 18, they were permitted to make their first human sacrifices to Kali.
The Thuggee had their female counterparts in a secret sect of Tantrists who held that it was only by a constant indulgence in passion that a human could ever achieve total union with Kali. Only indulgence in the five vices that corrupt the soul of humankind— wine, meat, fish, mystical gesticulations, and sexual indulgence—could drive the poisons out of the human body and purify the soul.
In 1822, William Sleeman, an officer in the Bengal Army who had transferred to civil service, was appointed by Governor General Lord Bentinck to rid India of the society of stranglers. Fluent in four Indian dialects, Sleeman had been the British official who had first confirmed the growing suspicion that the murders were committed throughout central India by the Thuggee. He was well aware that it would be no easy task putting a halt to such large-scale murders, for the members of the secret society were indistinguishable from any other of the many bands of outlaws who infested the country's roads. And what made the job of identifying the Thugs even more difficult was the fact that they were indistinguishable from any of the travelers and merchants who were their victims. As their name implied, they were master deceivers.
Finally, by meticulously marking the scene of each discovered attack site on a map and by maintaining careful records of the dates, Sleeman was able to begin to predict the areas where the next mass murders were likely to take place. When his agents and informants brought him word that known members of the Thuggee had been seen in a certain region, Sleeman sent his personally recruited police officers out disguised as merchants in order to ambush the Thugs who appeared to attack what they believed was a group of harmless travelers.
Between 1830 and 1841, Sleeman's police captured at least 3,700 Thugs, breaking forever the back of the infamous secret society. Of this total, only 50 received a pardon for supplying valuable information that had been utilized in destroying the secret society. The remainder of those apprehended were imprisoned for life and 500 were hanged. Without exception, the Thuggee condemned to be hanged went to their own deaths with the same lack of emotion with which they had murdered their victims. In many instances, their final request from the hangman was that they be permitted to place the noose around their own neck.
Trials of Thuggee brought out many ghastly facts about the deadly skills of some of its members. A band of 20 confessed that they had participated in 5,200 murders. An individual named Buhram, who had been a strangler for 40 years, had the highest lifetime score to his discredit—931. When asked if he experienced any feelings of remorse or guilt, he answered sharply that no man should ever feel compunction in following his trade.
Although isolated cases of a Thug's proficiency with a noose still exist in India and in other parts of the world, the stranglers of the goddess Kali no longer exist as a secret society. The designation of "thug," however, remains as a negative term applied to brutish criminals.
The violent chapter imprinted in India's history by the cult of the Thuggee has been portrayed quite often in motion pictures, notably Gunga Din (1939) with Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Victor McLaglen; Terence Fisher's Stranglers of Bombay (1960); Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) with Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw; and The Deceivers (1988) with Pierce Brosnan.
Brantlinger, Patrick. Confessions of a Thug. Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1998.
Daraul, Arkon. A History of Secret Societies. New York: Pocket Books, 1969.
Heckethorn, Charles William. Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries. Kila, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 1997.
Howard, Michael. The Occult Conspiracy: Secret Societies—Their Influence and Power in World History. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1989.