Every civilization in human history has had gangs. Organized crime is nothing new. Most nations have some heinous event from living memory perpetrated by gangsters. The crimes of organized criminals still pale in comparison to the atrocities committed at state level or in the name of religion. But what if that gang you fear turned into a cult of violence?
That's exactly what happened in India from the 13th to the 19th century. Reports indicate that while still active, the Thuggee cult murdered more than 2 million people.
Birth of a Killer Cult
There are many theories concerning the origin of the Thuggee fraternity. Some point to soldiers left destitute after their armies were disbanded. Others claim the origin lies in Muslim tribes that fled Delhi after the murder of either a doctor or the favorite slave of emperor Akbar I.
According to the Thuggee oral tradition, they are descended from the Kanjar tribe. Kanjaris have long been under the yoke of social stigma. During the Colonial Period, where India was subjugated by England, they were essentially outlawed. British rulers created the Criminal Tribes Act, which labels populations as:
"addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offenses."
The Sultan captured a member of the Thuggee cult. His confession led to the arrest of over 1000 of his comrades. They were not executed, instead the Sultan had them sent South to the city of Gauḍa.
There they grew into a much greater threat.
The word Thuggee, and the modern word, Thug, comes from the Sanskrit root sthaga, which means deceitful and sly. Thuggee was a name that struck fear into the hearts of everyone in India for 600 years.
Their beliefs were centered around the Hindu goddess, Kali. Her name translates to "She who is death" from Sanskrit. Kali is the goddess of death, time, and the end of the world.
Thuggee belief held that they were born from Kali's sweat. Through murder, they would sate her thirst for blood and ward off doomsday. Not all Thugs were Hindu. By some estimates, a third of their number was Muslim.
The Muslim Thuggee assimilated the worship of Kali into their monotheistic belief. To them, Kali was a subservient spirit serving God.
So how exactly does a cult sacrifice 2 million people over the course of 600 years? The answer is misdirection and strangulation. So much strangulation. In fact, having a neck at all in India made you a prime target.
While the Thuggee were known for robbery and murder, they didn't limit themselves. Further criminal activities attributed to the Thugs include human trafficking (slavery), and poisoning.
The common tactic used by Thuggee killers was for two Thugs to distract you from the front while a third sneaks up behind you and strangles you. Thuggees used nooses, scarves, sashes, and garrote wire to perform their strangulation.
Thugs also committed their murders on larger scales. Often committing mass murders in the name of their beliefs.
Other times they would mix a powerful narcotic from Datura (Angel's/Devil's Trumpet). This was used as a deliriant to overcome their victim and make it easier to rob and strangle them.
Datura consumption produces a painful, and sometimes deadly, psychedelic intoxication. Ingestion of this plant is to be avoided at all costs.
End of the Thuggee Secret Society
Cults aren't always secret societies, and secret societies aren't always cults. The Thuggee were both, as well as being possibly the world's first Mafia.
The British colonizers didn't like what the Thuggee were doing. Sowing terror and genocidal levels of murder was their job, dammit! Jokes aside, the British were trying to create a sense of order in their territory.
William Sleeman was appointed by the British Governor to bring an end to the Thuggee. Sleeman had been an officer in the Bengal Army before shifting to civil service.
Through meticulously noting the locations of the Thuggee attacks on a map, Sleeman was able to predict their movements. He sent his secret police out disguised as simple merchants to deceive the deceivers.
Over an 11-year period between 1830-1841, Sleeman's police arrested 3,700 Thugs. 500 of the captured Thuggees were hanged. Their final request was often to be allowed to place the noose around their own necks.
During the trials, the Thuggee proudly admitted to their atrocities. One Thug, Buhram, was particularly proud of his achievements. He had personally strangled 931 people.
Thuggee No More
William Sleeman successfully put an end to the Thuggee Cult. They remain imprinted in the subconscious of the Indian people, and the world at large. Such evil is difficult to forget.
The Thuggee have been used as antagonists in pop culture for a while. It's always OK to fight and kill Nazis and Thuggee on screen. Most famously, the Thuggee appeared as the evil cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.