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Thuggee: The Origin of Thugs in India

Thuggee: The Origin of Thugs

When a thug murders or robs, the act is called Thuggee or tuggee, the Hindi word for deceit. Thuggee, the origin of thugs is derived from the act of thugging from an ancient fraternity of assassins. The first mention of thugs in India was in the year 1356 A.D. and have been in operation for over 600 years. Thugs are referred to a band group or fraternity of assassins.

The ways to become a thug back in the day was:

  1. Membership passed down from father to son as some bands evolved into criminal tribes.
  2. Men became acquainted with members of the group and hoped to be recruited.
  3. Young children of victims were spared and groomed to be thugs and also children help in avoiding suspicion from authorities.
  4. As an apprentice, training with a guru and assessed on reliability, strength, discretion and other criteria.

The Thug Life

The modus operandi of the thugs in the past was to join travelers and gain their confidence. At the right opportunity while eating or sleeping, in an isolated area or near a river bank, the thug/thugs would strangle the victims with a handkerchief, rob the victim and bury the body or throw it down a well. This led to thugs being called noose-operators or phansigars.

The Thug View

Thuggees: Kali worshippers

Thugs considered themselves to be descendants of the goddess of death, Kali, and to be created from her sweat. Although, most of the thugs captured by the British were Muslims, according to records. In actuality, people became thugs because of extreme poverty and as a source of income. Being a thug transcends religion and caste. The use of a scarf had its practical advantages as it served as a concealed weapon in plain sight. It wouldn’t strike anyone that a person with a scarf might be a thug.

The Solution To Thuggie

William Henry Sleeman
William Henry Sleeman

From the time the British were in India (the 1830’s), they tried suppressing thugs. William Henry Sleeman, a Civil Servant who had adopted India as his home was instrumental in capturing Feringhea, a criminal on whom the novel ‘Confessions of a Thug’ is based on. The criminal led the authorities to a grave with over 100 bodies and gave up the names of his partners in crime. After this, Fleeman set up the Thuggee and Dacoity Department in 1835 and this department was replaced in 1904 by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department (CID). Some parties (France, India and US) believe that thuggee was an invention by the Empire to keep a hold on the country and gave them leeway to prosecute almost anyone.

The Aftermath

A group thugs in medieval India
A group thugs in medieval India

The estimated death toll of civilians murdered by thugs in India over the past 600 years is around 2 million according to the Guinness Book of World Records, 1 million according to Prem Choudhary and 500,000 according to David. C. Rapport. Thugs in India have also been quoted as the most destructive terrorist group in history.


Sleemanabad is a small town near Jabalpur named after William Henry Sleeman. This village was created in 1833 after Sleeman obtained 96 acres from the Crown for the poor. The court at which Sleeman tried the thugs is now the local police station. Close by lies a shrine dedicated to William Sleeman, the repressor of thuggee.

The villains in Indiana Jones were called Thuggees and is a good watch. Do read about the Mafia in India and the Mumbai underworld.


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