Originally published in the Daily Telegraph · 17 January 2014
The word “thug” is used universally to mean anyone who perpetrates mindless violence. But it’s often forgotten that it once had a very specific meaning – one so horrible it was the reason the word entered English in the first place. The Thugs were Indian roadside bandits, originally from what is now Madhya Pradesh in central India, who strangled and robbed unwary travellers, having previously befriended them. The word comes from the Sanskrit sthag, meaning to deceive or trick.
I first came across the Thugs about 15 years ago. My mother-in-law, a remarkable woman who had spent 12 years in Chennai (then Madras), talked fascinatingly about them and their nemesis and chronicler, William “Thugee” Sleeman.
Sleeman was one of those now-forgotten, larger-than-life, 19th-century colonial figures, a brilliant linguist and exceptional administrator with a voracious appetite for work, and great intellectual curiosity. He was the first man to identify dinosaur fossils in India, an especially striking feat since he did so when the subject was in its infancy. In a sense he was also responsible for The Jungle Book – he was the first man to collect stories about feral children, inspiring Kipling to create Mowgli.
But he was chiefly famous for the campaign he led to crush the Thugs in the late 1820s and early 1830s, and the articles and books he subsequently wrote about them, based on interviews with those he had persuaded to turn informer.
Sleeman described a secret India-wide cult of murderers with its own customs, rituals and language, plying its trade along the roads of India over centuries. During the dry season from October to March, the Thugs would travel in large groups. Scouts would select victims – always other Indians – and the group would then take on a disguise to win the trust of their prey. They might present themselves as a band of musicians or Sikh merchants or high-caste pilgrims, always making sure they vastly outnumbered their victims. Among the Thugs, there was always an inveigler or deceiver, often the chief or jemadar of the gang, whose role it was to charm and persuade other travellers to join them.
The gang might travel with their marks for a day or a week. Then, one evening, as everyone sat round the fire, the stranglers, or bhurtotes, and two helpers would quietly position themselves behind each victim. The Thug leader would make a sign – calling for tobacco perhaps – and the stranglers would throw an orange scarf, the rumal, around the victims’ necks and garrotte them, their helpers grabbing hold of the victim’s arms. Thugs prided themselves on the speed and precision of their work. No one was spared, the victims just a few more of the disappeared on India’s empty roads.
Once the victim or victims were dead the bodies were stripped of all identification and thrown into round graves dug beforehand, their stomachs cut open to disperse any gases produced during decomposition that might attract attention, while their possessions were taken off by a small contingent of the gang to be divided up later.
There were two other things that made the Thugs particularly unpleasant. One was the scale of their killing: Sleeman’s grandson estimated that over the centuries they had committed more than one million murders. (More realistic estimates now put the figure at somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000.) One single Thug named Buhram apparently confessed to more than 900 murders.
Moreover, Sleeman said, their crimes were not simply murders, they were acts of devotion to the goddess Kali, the many-armed, black-faced Hindu goddess of death and destruction, who wore a necklace of severed heads. She fed off the blood of their victims. To compound the litany of horror, Sleeman claimed that some Thug gangs were actively protected by local princes in return for a share of their spoils.
One can see exactly why Sleeman’s writings caught the imagination of the British. In the fervid atmosphere of the evangelical 1830s, the Thugs became a byword for the dark, fascinating strangeness of the East – of the evils and moral redundancy of Hinduism, and the corruptness of the Indian ruling class. In 1839, Confessions of a Thug, a now unreadable Gothic novel by another former Indian hand, Philip Meadows Taylor, which drew closely on Sleeman’s writings, became an instant bestseller. Queen Victoria was apparently a fan.
One striking thing about these early accounts was that they retained a sliver of almost admiring fascination for the Thugs: Sleeman described them as remorseless killers but loyal and devoted family men. One gang leader, Feringhea, was portrayed as a prince among Thugs, irresistibly attractive and dangerous. Meadows Taylor based his protagonist on Feringhea, having him describe his life as a Thug in a tone of pride as well as horror.
The extent to which these stories penetrated Victorian Britain can be seen in the way that a series of garrottings and muggings in London in the 1860s conjured a widespread and entirely unjustified panic that Thugs had arrived in Britain. Sinister Indian cults began to turn up in other novels, for example in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.
Over subsequent decades the word gradually lost its Eastern connotations. Now and again, though, the old colonial meaning would reassert itself: in the 1939 film Gunga Din, where the Thugs appeared as monstrous religious fanatics and rebels against the Raj; in John Masters’ 1959 novel, The Deceivers, based on the character and writings of Sleeman; and in the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where they were a crazed underground death cult bent on world domination through human sacrifice. The Indian government deemed the script so racist, it refused to allow filming in India. It was shot in Sri Lanka instead.
I squirrelled the Thugs away in the back of my mind. A writer of non-fiction, I couldn’t see how to blow the dust off them. Then I came across a reference to them as a “colonial fear”. Since the Sixties Indian and British historians have begun to claim that the Thugs had never existed – or at least in the way that Sleeman described them. In Hindustani “thug” originally meant not murderer, but trickster or con man. It was undeniable that they had appeared at a moment when the East India Company, then ruling large parts of India in the name of the British government, had been very keen to find justifications for its continued and ever-extending presence in India, and that their lurid story perfectly illustrated why India needed the British and their civilising influence.
On the other hand Sleeman’s papers in the East India Office were concrete evidence of the extraordinary modern detective techniques he had developed to track down real people, and exhume real corpses. In his excellent Thug, Mike Dash – who believes there were Thugs – describes the lists that Sleeman devised of Thugs’ aliases and distinguishing marks, of family trees and gangs, the maps of Thug routes and burial grounds. He had thick files of confessions. Thousands of Indians were tried, then hanged or transported to brutal penal colonies (virtually none was acquitted). Sleeman’s bigger claims, however, about an ancient, secret conspiracy of Kali-worshipping murderers, did not stand up to scrutiny, and seemed to owe more to his overheated imagination and revulsion towards Hinduism than to his interviews.
The central Indian provinces where Sleeman was based had a long history of banditry, made worse after decades of war and anarchy. Some historians have speculated that the Thugs were really gangs of former soldiers, uprooted tribal groups, and peasants driven off the land or blighted by poor harvests. Sleeman’s papers show that rather than having been Thugs for generations, many took to the road for a season or two out of desperation. As the Thugee campaign was extended across India it swept up many small-time criminals, bandits and nomadic groups troublesome to the British, all of whom were branded as Thugs. Bandits who didn’t use a rumal, or bury their victims, or worship Kali might quite speciously be called Thugs. There were other contradictions in Sleeman’s writings: it seems likely that, without realising it, he was setting down for the first time a range of the traditions, superstitions and thieves’ slang of a much wider nomadic and criminal culture in India than just one group. It’s also worth remembering that his sources were informers who saved their necks by telling him what he wanted to hear.
The plot thickened, moreover, as it became apparent that in Indian folk memory – as opposed to official imperial histories – Sleeman emerged as an admired but also ruthless figure. My mother-in-law insisted that in India it was widely assumed he had used torture to extract confessions. He tried defendants in English, which they did not understand, and in territorial courts that required a far lower burden of proof than other parts of India. In Jubbulpur it’s still said that Sleeman hanged Thugs from mango trees all the way to Mirzapur, a distance of 250 miles.
It was the fascinating duality of Sleeman and the unknowability of the truth about the Thugs that at last gave me a route to writing about them – in fiction. Having written two long biographies, it seemed like a great departure, but in writing, I came to think that the phrase “historical mystery” is a kind of tautology. All history writing has to accept the ultimate unknowability of the past. In fiction you get to play with it.