Between the 18th and 19th centuries, a large gang of stranglers operated on the highways. Amongst them was the most prolific serial killer in history: Thug Buhram Jemadar ‘The King of the Thugs’. With a mere handkerchief (called Rumāl), Buhram is estimated to have killed 931 people in his 40 years of operation. While Buhram would have been an exemplary case study in the motives of a serial killer, his personality is not known. His capture was part of a larger British crackdown on the Thugs.
The ‘Thug‘ community are mentioned in Indian lore as far back as the 14th century and have many names depending on which part of the country you are in. In the North, they were the Thugs whose way of life was called ‘Thuggee’; in the South, they were Phansigars (Stranglers), in Tamil lands, Ari Tulucar (Ari meaning to cut and Tulucar, originating from Turkey, meaning Muslim), in Canarese “Tanti Calleru” (thieves who use a wire or a cat-gut noose”, in Telugu Warlu Wahndlu (people who use the noose).
That their modus operandi was common across India suggests a phenomenon larger than just a temporary gang of murderers. And their death count is unfathomable today. Between 1740 and 1840, they are estimated to have killed at least 40,000 people a year. With over five centuries of operation, they are held responsible for anywhere between one million and three million murders. The historian Mike Dash estimates it to be around 50,000 in total, in his book, “Thug: The True Story Of India’s Murderous Cult.”
What made the Thugs different was their ethos. They operated by befriending travelers (alone or in groups), often traveling with them for hundreds of miles. When the victim is asleep or vulnerable, they move in from behind and strangulate them using a handkerchief called Ruhmal. The body would have a ritual performed over it (or not) and then buried out of sight.
It was only when similar-looking mass graves started being unearthed across the country that the East India Company started to take an interest in why so many travellers were disappearing off the roads. The then Governor General, William Bentinck, was appointed in a time where the British sought to consolidate their power over India – and an increasingly loss-making East India Company. The Thuggee and Dacoity Department was set up in 1830 and led by a colonel named William Sleens.
To kill the thugs, the British had to enlist the aid of thugs themselves. Under the system of “King’s Evidence’, captured thugs were encouraged to rat out their comrades. In exchange, they had to be provided with protection for “Thugs will strangle a King’s Evidence!”, as one Thug said in fear. They were given special accommodation, away from the other prisoners, in Jabalpur.
William Sleens made good use of this system of informants. He sought and received extraordinary powers to tackle this ‘extraordinary association‘. These powers included the ability to prosecute and indict anyone whom the Thug informants named as guilty. Unsurprisingly, this was often used by the Thugs to settle old scores. Between 1826 and 1846, three thousand were sentenced to prison – and 504 hanged.
It is not known whether Burham personally killed the 931 people he is thought guilty of. He was captured after an associate ratted him out for the Rs.100 reward on offer. The associate was ironically a Revenue Collector at Oudh – and a former strangler himself. He led a guard of eight sepoys to Burham’s house. When the latter was surrounded by policemen, he immediately surrendered, saying:
I am a Thug, my father and grandfather were Thugs, and I have Thugged with many. Let the government employ me and I will do its work.
Burham’s modus operandi was also unique – like all Thugs, he used a Rumāl, but he had a medallion placed on it. It allowed him to exert extra pressure on the victim’s Adam’s apple – prompting a speedier death.
It is suggested that Burham became a King’s Evidence, but what he received in exchange is to question. His confessions varied the scale of his crime – from suggesting involvement in 931 murders (which could include those of his associates) to claiming to have personally killed 275.
What is known for certain is that Burham was hanged in 1840. With his death and the arrest of countless others, the British had largely eliminated Thuggee from the subcontinent. For some, their operation was an early equivalent of modern-day investigative agencies. For others, it was a prop to set-up a PR campaign for a larger British role in India.
The Thugs were vilified in every report they were included in. Though described as worshippers of Kali who revel in destruction, it’s true that their ranks included many Muslims. But they are also described as having robbed and murdered for a pittance. The suggestion was that they were not driven by economic needs – but by bloodlust.
Sleeman described the elaborate rituals of the Thuggee in his memoir, “Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official.” Amongst them includes worshipping the pickaxe that will be used to dig the victim’s grave, and sprinkling sugar on the corpse as a final homage to Kali.
Post-colonial analyses suggest that the legend of the Thuggee was cultivated to legitimize British rule in India. The idea is that William H. Sleeman’s accounts of a murderous Kali-worshipping cult might have been overstated. Thus are two extremes to the idea of the Thugs – that they existed and killed millions, or that it was a British slur for dacoits used to legitimize the British way of life over that of the savage native.
However, credit is due to Sleeman, for he was triumphant in complete eradication of the Thugs. Between 1830 and 1850, the Thugees were wiped out and strangling disappeared from India’s roads. Travellers were safe at last.
After the eradication of the Thugs, the British found a much greater role in Indian affairs. Sleeman’s Thuggee and Dacoity Department was later merged into the Central Special Branch – the precursor of the modern-day Intelligence Bureau (IB), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and State Criminal Investigating Departments (CID). In 1904, the Thuggee Department shut its doors for good.
Today, when we talk about the thug life, we use a word that originated in India. Thug comes from the Marathi ‘thag’ or ‘thak’ meaning ‘cheat’ or ‘swindler’. This itself has a Sanskrit origin, ‘sthaga’, meaning ‘cunning’ or ‘fraudulent’. By the time the word reached the Oxford dictionary, it came to mean “A violent person, especially a criminal.”
The cult of the murderous Thugs made its way to cinema screens – most popularly in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. The villains in the movie are the Kali-worshiping Thuggees – and the British Indian Army plays a key role in rescuing the heroes from the bad guys.
There was a time when, traveling the long and lonely roads of India at night and even during the day, you could be strangled to death by someone who wanted nothing more than your life. Though many hundreds died at the hands of the Thugs, it was the rule of law that ultimately prevailed. Indians traveling the length and breadth of the country still have many things to worry about – but a nationwide cult of trained murderers is no longer one of them.
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