Inside India #6: Thug Life – India’s Thuggee cult, history’s most prolific serial killers

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Nine hundred and thirty-one. That’s the number of murders attributed to an Indian named Behram Jemedar, a senior member of India’s notorious Thuggee cult. Because of his propensity for killing he is today regarded as one of the world’s most prolific serial killers. His tally is, nevertheless, a drop in the ocean when compared with the estimated two million that the Thugs collectively murdered over a period of six centuries on the subcontinent. 

Who were these mass murderers? Why did they kill? And what happened to them? 

The word Thuggee means “concealment”, and, in essence, this was the secret to the success of this gang of professional assassins and thieves. The Thugs were bound by something stronger than greed or malice; they were united through their devotion to the Hindu Goddess Kali, in whose name they carried out their killings. This fanatical cult operated in India from the 1200s to the late 1800s, organising themselves into an incredibly efficient machine that operated with a high degree of teamwork and co-ordination. 

The Thugs’ modus operandi was to join groups of travellers and gain their trust before surprising them in the night and (typically) strangling them with a handkerchief or noose. This quick and quiet method left no blood and required no complicated arsenal. To add insult to injury, the victim would then be divested of his or her possessions and carefully buried. 

Thugs travelled in packs, with each participant assigned a role – one man was responsible for luring the unsuspecting victim into conversation, another acted as a lookout, and yet another might take on the role of killer. The gang used a secret language and signs; in this way members could recognize each other across the country. They were bound by a strict set of rules: for instance, they would not steal a person’s property unless the killing had been carried out with the proper observance of ritual. They would not kill the sick – considering them an unworthy sacrifice – or women, as they were deemed to be incarnations of Kali.

Membership to the fraternity was passed down from father to son. Others trained with a guru. Sometimes the children of victims were taken and groomed, inducted into their murderous future calling at an early age. 

The cult came to widespread recognition with the publication of Confessions of a Thug, a fictionalised account of their activities by Philip Meadows Taylor. The book, released in 1839, became a bestselling work of Empire – even Queen Victoria was said to be riveted! 

The Thugs’ silent reign of terror was ultimately brought to an end by the British. 

During the 1830s, the cult was targeted for eradication by the Governor-General of India, William Bentinck, who delegated the task to his chief captain, William Henry Sleeman. 

In 1835, Sleeman captured a Thug who led him to a grave containing almost a hundred bodies. The man quickly turned witness, offering up the names of many of his peers, allowing Sleeman to begin a pogrom to eradicate the menace. As a result of his efforts, within a few short years, more than 1400 Thugs were hanged or transported for life, including Behram Jemedar. In 1839, Sleeman published a government report and several books about his efforts including the colourfully entitled Report on the Depredations Committed by the Thug Gangs of Upper and Central India.

The Thugs vanished from Indian society, but rumours lingered of small operational units surviving well into the twentieth century. These rumours clearly travelled as far as Hollywood – back in the 1980s the Thugs made a notable appearance in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Today, their terrible legacy lives on in the word ‘thug’ which has found life not only as a way to refer to aggressive young criminals and antisocial teenagers but also as a dubious moniker used in the world of hip hop. 

No doubt Behram would be pleased. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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