India suffered for nearly five centuries at the hands of a murderous tribe of cultists called Thugs (pronounced Tugs), or “Thuggee.” The Thugs conflated their religion with membership. The leadership of established Thug clans tended to be hereditary.
Members of the Thuggee cult, like other Hindus, worshiped Kali, the goddess of destruction. But the Thugs’ Kali was a male-oriented death cult and demanded endless sacrifices to satisfy her hunger. There was a complex system of rituals. It was, however, not a blood ritual. Thugs killed without remorse but “with pleasure,” mixed with omens before and prayers afterward. Has an iteration of the Thugge and the Frankist mindset gained dominance in the modern world?
When India’s British administrators began to rule around 1800, they heard reports of large numbers of travelers disappearing on the country’s roads. Discovery of a series of mass graves across India revealed the gravity of the situation. Each site was piled with the bodies of individuals ritually murdered and buried in the same meticulous fashion. These killings were the work of a single organization: the Thuggee.
Thugs practiced extreme secrecy; which combined with their religion of murder, made them a most deadly secret society. In the early 19th century, they were credited with 40,000 deaths annually, and some estimates put the overall death toll in the several millions going back centuries.
Whatever drove the Thugs — probably a mixture of greed, blood lust and corrupted religious fervor — their output and activities were astonishing. One boasted of 931 murders in a 40-year span.
Thugs tended to favor targeting travelers and might join a group in small, non-threatening increments. At its root, the word “Thuggee” means “deceivers,” a name that describes their modus operandi. The killing place needed to be out of sight and followed the dumping-ground model. Favored places of execution were known as beles.
Often the impostors would journey for days and hundreds of miles with their targets. When the time was opportune, a signal would be given — reportedly, the phrase “bring the tobacco” — and the Thugs would attack. Typically, three men would grab and hold a victim down and strangle them with a rumal, a yellow silk handkerchief. Actually, blood-letting was disapproved of. Thugs of the highest rank performed the actual killings.
The cult’s power was its pervasiveness within Indian society. In an era where strict caste divisions dominated every aspect of life, Thuggee was unique for transcending all such social barriers. Anyone from a farmer to an aristocrat could be a Thug. However, they were the prototypical in-group, closed to outsiders. Like the Frankists cult there was inbreeding.
They seemed to enjoy a level of protection similar to modern-day Shadow Government-Crime Syndicate types. They clearly had the country living in fear, and a strange ambivalence toward the cult existed — mostly out of fear or superstition of crossing them and the vengeful goddess Kali. The rich and powerful had some vested interest in Thug activity in terms of payoffs from the looting of victims and bribes. For the public, a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, fear-no-evil cognitive dissonance attitude prevailed, which allowed this death cult to gain a foothold. It was as if the Thugs had managed to keep the country traumatized.
When Thugs were arrested, they were almost invariably released for lack of evidence. When they were executed for crimes, they showed no trace of emotion, often requesting to be allowed to place the noose around his own neck.
In 1836, the British passed the “Act for the Suppression of Thuggee and Dacoity (bandits).” William Sleeman was its first superintendent. Thousands of thugs were imprisoned, executed or expelled from British India. The campaign relied on captured Thugs, who became informants. These informants were offered protection on the condition that they told everything that they knew. They were also baited and ensnared in traps. By the 1870s, the murderous Thug cult was finally exterminated.