ThuggeeSanskrit root sthag (Pali, thak), to conceal, mainly applied to fraudulent concealment) was an Indian cult worshipping Kali whose members were known as Thugs. It was allegedly a hereditary cult with both Muslim and Hindu members that practiced large-scale robbery and murder of travellers by strangulation. Induction was typically passed from father to son, with the women of the household being kept ignorant of the cult activity.
The Thugs were a well-organized confederacy of professional assassins, who in gangs of 10 to 200 travelled in various guises through India, wormed themselves into the confidence of wayfarers of the wealthier class. When a favorable opportunity arose, the Thug strangled his victim by throwing a handkerchief or noose around the neck, and then plundered and buried him. All this was done according to certain ancient and rigidly prescribed forms and after the performance of special religious rites, in which the consecration of the pickaxe and the sacrifice of sugar formed a prominent part. From their using the noose as an instrument of murder they were also frequently called Phansigars, or "noose-operators."
Though they themselves trace their origin to seven Muslim tribes, Hindus appear to have been associated with them at only in the early days of Islam; at any rate, their religious creed and staunch worship of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, showed no Islamic influence. Assassination for gain was a religious duty for them, and was considered a holy and honorable profession, in which moral feelings did not come into play.
The will of the goddess by whose command and in whose honor they followed their calling was revealed to them through a very complicated system of omens. In obedience to these, they often travelled hundreds of miles in company with, or in the wake of, their intended victims before a safe opportunity presented itself for executing their design; and, when the deed was done, rites were performed in the deity's honor, and a significant portion of the spoils was set apart for her.
The fraternity also possessed a jargon of their own (Ramasi), as well as certain signs by which its members recognized each other in the remotest parts of India. Even those who from age or infirmities could no longer take an active part in the ritual murder continued to aid the cause as watchers, spies, or dressers of food. Because of their thorough organization, the secrecy and security of their operation, and the religious pretext in which they shrouded their murders, they were recognized as a regular tax-paying profession and continued for centuries to practice their craft, free of inquiry from Hindu or Muslim rulers.
Both of the sects into which they were divided by the Nerbudda river laid claim to antiquity. While the northern, however, did not trace their origin further back than the period of the early Muslim kings of Delhi, the southern fraction not only claimed an earlier and purer descent, but adhered also with greater strictness to the rules of their profession.
The earliest authenticated mention of the Thugs is found in the following passage of Ziau-d din Barni's History of Firoz Shah (written about 1356):
- "In the reign of that sultan [about 1290], some Thugs were taken in Delhi, and a man belonging to that fraternity was the means of about a thousand being captured. But not one of these did the sultan have killed. He gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the lower country, to the neighborhood of Lakhnauti, where they were to be set free. The Thugs would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti and would not trouble the neighborhood of Delhi any more." (Sir HM Elliot's History of India, iii. 141).
The story of Thuggee was popularised by books such as Philip Meadows Taylor's novel Confessions of a Thug, 1839, leading to the word "thug" entering the English language. John Masters' novel The Deceivers also deals with the subject. A more recent book is George Bruce, The Stranglers: The cult of Thuggee and its overthrow in British India (1968). The two most popular depictions of the cult in film are the 1939 film, Gunga Din and the 1984 Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Both films have the heroes fighting secret revivals of the cult to prevent them resuming their reigns of terror.