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Thuggees, the Notorious Cult Killers in Indian History

Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

India: 'Thugs Strangling a Traveller', Lucknow, c.1830-1840

India: 'Thugs Strangling a Traveller', Lucknow, c.1830-1840

'Thug' Is Not an English Word

‘Thug’ has been always a loaded word simply because it evokes within us a plethora of unpleasant emotions.

This four-letter word paints of picture of brutal malevolence, an utter lack of empathy, and violence and destruction going beyond the limits of barbarism. And the word has been liberally splashed across the media from time to time.

The thugs are out looting and rioting in the cities of America.’

‘The police brutality is utterly thuggish’.

‘How did this thug of a man become so powerful?’

And so on……...

Opinion pieces are full of it and perceptions are created and broken every single day based on this simple four-letter word.

That said, the thug is not an American word. In fact, it is not even an English word. The word has a twisted saga of barbarism, based on religious practices associated with it that goes back to 13th century India. ‘Thug’ finds its origins in the Hindi word ‘thag’ which translates into ‘thief’ and the Sanskrit word ‘sthagati’ which means to conceal.

And the Thugs or Thuggees were history’s most notorious and deadly criminal cult, who preyed upon travelers along the highways until the end of 19th century India.

Their modus operandi was quite simple; by appearing to be friendly with fellow travelers, they will win over their trust and become close friends over long journeys. Once the travelers will reach a secluded spot, the victims would be strangled, plundered, and buried ruthlessly and efficiently.

Thugees were finally persecuted and eliminated later during the 19th century in British-ruled India. And they are the reason the word ‘thug’ was introduced to the English language.

Stranglers from Thuggee sect in Aurangabad prison

Stranglers from Thuggee sect in Aurangabad prison

Thuggery Was a Seasonal Occupation

Thuggery was a seasonal occupation with the thugs leaving the village after the autumn harvest (Oct-Nov) and returning around June-July before the rains set in. This was also the time when there was a heavy influx of travelers across the country for various purposes.

The sepoys of the East India Company were the primary targets for the 19th-century thugs for their weapons and horses. The other victims were merchants, pilgrims, and even officials traveling to various parts of the county with their entourage. Thugs were both Hindus and Muslims and their cult was based on Goddess Kali, one of the most destructive and fierce of all Hindu deities.

The Thuggee operated according to a strict series of practices. To start with, membership induction was often passed from father to son, with the women of the home being kept unaware of the men’s cult activity to prevent any ‘weakness’ if captured. They traveled in gangs of 10 to 200 members, all dressed in various disguises. They worked in teams and took the time to earn their victim’s confidence.

Once the situation is favorable, the victim will be killed by a group of three thugs. The intended victim would be distracted first by either music or sweets and then one of the Thugs would strangle the victim from behind using a scarf called a rumal while the other two would hold the victim down.

A pickaxe would be used to dig the graves for the victims and sugar consecrated in the burial process. The plunder would be then equally distributed among the thugs with a portion going toward veneration of the goddess.

Peshawur - Group of Thugs, c 1865

Peshawur - Group of Thugs, c 1865

The Killing Must Be Bloodless

An important rule was that the killing must be bloodless which the thugs believed was important for satisfying the Goddess Kali who is often shown holding a severed head and brandishing weapons in her many arms. By bloodless killing, the thugs believed they were helping the Goddess Kali in balancing the good and evil in the world.

They considered murder and robbery as their religious duty and followed a very complicated system of omens for accomplishing it. They also had a special language called ramsi which was an elaborate system of signals and codes to communicate with each other.

Everybody had a role to play in the Thuggee cult. Even Thugees who were either too old or too young would be assigned jobs as guides, spies, supply providers, or even religious people.

Because of the closeness, secrecy, and discipline of the Thuggee organization, they were rarely suspected with most of them living the lives of respected law-abiding citizens going about their daily routine.

We would never know the full extent of the murderous activities, but some estimates put the overall murder count as high as 2,000,000, with the cult operating for at least 500 years before their activities started raising suspicion.

And it wasn’t until the British Rule in the 19th century, that a large-scale action was perpetuated against the thugs leading to the final elimination of thuggery.

Vintage engraving of Thuggee or Thugs of India, 19th Century. Thuggee refers to the acts of Thugs, an organized gang of professional robbers and murderers

Vintage engraving of Thuggee or Thugs of India, 19th Century. Thuggee refers to the acts of Thugs, an organized gang of professional robbers and murderers

Thuggery Was Eliminated Finally

With the increasing reports on thuggee across India, the British finally decided to take concrete action towards eliminating the menace. On October 13, 1830, Captain William Sleeman was authorized to put down the system of Thuggee for good.

Sleeman began operations against the thugs starting in 1835 by establishing extensive profiling, intelligence, and punishment activities. A special police organization named the Thuggee and Dacoity Department within the Government of India and between 1830 to 1835, a total of 1562 thugs were tried; 382 were sentenced to death, 909 to penal colonies, 77 to imprisonment for life.

Constant pursing, strangling of their supply networks, arrest and punishment resulted in the collapse of the entire Thuggee system. Eventually, the Thuggee movement was extinguished forever by the late 1800s.

Yes, there were reports telling that the British used the Thuggee operation as a witch hunt – an excuse for even clamping down the activities of rebels, dissidents, and writers who protested against their rule with some writers even criticizing the need for such an extensive operation.

While we may never know the truth, one thing was for sure the elimination of the thugs made the roads safe to travel again and greatly improved the security of average Indians, especially the many travelers, traders, and merchants.

Yes, questions are still asked about their actual motive. Did they kill for money or religious beliefs? Can a simply monetary reason drive them to kill scores of people when killing is not really required? Either way, the Thuggees did manage to make an infamous mark for themselves as history’s deadliest murderers.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ravi Rajan


Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 14, 2021:

Thanks, Flourish for your comments

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 14, 2021:

I learned a lot from this account of these scoundrels. Thanks for describing the history.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 13, 2021:

Thanks Rosina

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 13, 2021:

Thanks MG

Rosina S Khan on March 13, 2021:

This is an interesting and dangerous account of thugs in India, thuggery being initiated from such an ancient time. I am glad the British during their rule in India were able get rid of the thuggery system, making it extinct. Thanks for sharing, Ravi.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on March 13, 2021:

Nice article

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 13, 2021:

Thanks DEvika for your comments

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 13, 2021:

I have not heard of these killers and this must have been awful to go through in such times.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 13, 2021:

Thanks Bill

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 13, 2021:

Thanks Misbah

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 13, 2021:

Disturbing, fascinating, and amazing. Thank you for sharing this dark piece of history.

Misbah Sheikh from — This Existence Is Only an Illusion on March 13, 2021:

Ravi Rajan, Thanks a lot for sharing this informative and interesting article. The article made me remind of Amir Khan's

Peace and Blessings

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on March 13, 2021:

Thanks, Liz for the comments

Liz Westwood from UK on March 13, 2021:

This is a well-written and interesting article. I have learnt a lot from reading it.