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Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Oldest Mafia In The World

Thuggee (or tuggee) (from Hindi thag thief, from Sanskrit sthaga scoundrel, from sthagati to conceal) was an Indian network of secret fraternities sometimes described as the world's first mafia, operating from the 17th century (possibly as early as 13th century) to the 1830s whose members were known as Thugs. This is the origin of the term thug, as many Indian words passed into common English during British Imperial rule of India.

Working method

Thuggee groups practiced large-scale robbery and murder of travellers. Their modus operandi was first to befriend unsuspecting travellers and win their trust. When the travellers allowed the thugs to join them, the group of thugs killed them at a suitable place and time before robbing them. Their method of killing was very often strangulation. Usually two or three thugs were needed to strangle one traveller. The thugs hid the corpses often by burying them or sometimes by throwing them into wells.

Thuggee groups consisted both of Hindus and Muslims though their patron Goddess was the Hindu godess of Kali whom they often called Bhowanee. Some historians classify the thugs as a cult or sect.

They preferred to kill their victims at certain suitable places, called beles that they knew well. They killed their victims usually in darkness while the thugs made music or noise to escape discovery. Each member of the group had their own function, like luring travellers with charming words, or guardians to prevent escape of victims while the killing took place. The leader of a gang was called jemadar.

Origin and recruitment

The earliest authenticated mention of the Thugs is found in the following passage of Ziau-d din Barni's History of Firoz Shah (written about 1356):

In the reign of that sultan (about 1290), some Thugs were taken in Delhi, and a man belonging to that fraternity was the means of about a thousand being captured. But not one of these did the sultan have killed. He gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the lower country, to the neighborhood of Lakhnauti, where they were to be set free. The Thugs would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti and would not trouble the neighborhood of Delhi any more." (Sir HM Elliot's History of India, iii. 141).

Though they themselves trace their origin to seven Muslim tribes, the Hindu followers only seem to be related during the early periods of Islamic development; at any rate, their religious creed and staunch worship of Kali, one of the Hindu Tantric Goddesses, showed no Islamic influence. Assassination for gain was a religious duty for them, and was considered a holy and honorable profession, in which moral feelings did not come into play. The practice of thuggee was categorically stamped out by the British by the early 19th century. It should be noted that even at the time, a very small minority of followers of Kali were thuggees, and did not share the thuggee viewpoint.

Induction was sometimes passed from father to son and the leaders of the thug groups tended to come from these hereditary thugs. Another way by which people became thugs was that sometimes the thugs did not kill the young children of the travellers and groomed them to become thugs themselves. Some men became thugs to escape great poverty. A fourth way of becoming a thug was by learning it from a guru.

Beliefs and practices

The Thugs were a well-organized confederacy of professional assassins who travelled in various guises through India in gangs of 10 to 200, worming themselves into the confidence of wayfarers of the wealthier class. When a favorable opportunity arose, the Thug strangled his victim by throwing a yellow scarf or Rumal (symbolic of Kal Bhairab) around the neck, and then plundered and buried him. All this was done according to certain ancient and rigidly prescribed forms, and after the performance of special religious rites, in which the consecration of the pickaxe and the sacrifice of sugar formed a prominent part. The pickaxe was a necessary tool to dig graves. Due to the fact that they used strangulation as the method of murder they were also frequently called "Phansigars", or "noose-operators."

The will of the goddess by whose command and in whose honor they followed their calling was revealed to them through a very complicated system of omens. In obedience to these, they often travelled hundreds of miles in company with, or in the wake of, their intended victims before a safe opportunity presented itself for executing their design. When the deed was done, rites were performed in the deity's honor, and a significant portion of the spoils was set apart for Her.

They believed each murder prevented Kali's (their goddess's) arrival for 1000 years. The fraternity also possessed a jargon of their own (the cant Ramasi), as well as certain signs by which its members recognized each other in the most remote parts of India. Even those who from age or infirmities could no longer take an active part in the ritual murder continued to aid the cause as watchers, spies, or dressers of food. Because of their thorough organization, the secrecy and security of their operation, and the religious pretext in which they shrouded their murders, they were recognized as a regular tax-paying profession and continued for centuries to practice their craft, free of inquiry from Hindu rulers.

Number of victims

Estimates of the total number of victims depend heavily on the estimated length of existence of the thugs for which there are no reliable sources. According to the Guinness Book of Records the Thuggee cult was responsible for approximately 2,000,000 deaths. The British historian Dr. Mike Dash estimated that they killed 50,000 persons in total based on his assumption that they only started to exist 150 years before their eradication in the 1830s.

Yearly figures for the early 19th century are better documented, but even they are inaccurate estimates. For example, gang leader Behram (or Burham) has often been considered to be the world's most prolific serial killer with 931 killings between 1790 and 1830 attributed to him. Reference to contemporary manuscript sources, however, shows that Behram actually gave inconsistent statements regarding the number of murders he had committed, and that while he did state that he had "been present at" more than 930 killings committed by his gang of 25-50 men, elsewhere he admitted that he had personally strangled around 125 people. Having turned King's Evidence and agreed to inform on his former companions, furthermore, Behram never stood trial for any of the killings attributed to him, the total of which must thus remain a matter of dispute [James Paton, 'Collections on Thuggee and Dacoitee', British Library Add.Mss. 41300].

British destruction of the secret society

Thuggee was suppressed by the British rulers of India in the 1830s, due largely to the efforts of William Sleeman, who started an extensive campaign involving profiling, intelligence, and executions. The campaign was heavily based on informants recruited from captured thugs who were offered protection on the condition that they told everything that they knew. A police organisation known as the Thuggee and Dacoity Department was established within the Government of India and remained in existence until 1904 when it was replaced by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department. The defeat of the Thuggees played a part in securing Indian loyalty to the British Raj.

Previous attempts at prosecuting and eliminating the thugs had been largely unsuccessful due to the lack of evidence for their crimes. The thugs' modus operandi yielded very little evidence: no witnesses, no weapons, and no corpses. Besides, the thugs usually made no confessions when captured. Another main reason was the fact that thug groups did not act locally, but all over the Indian subcontinent, including territories that did not belong to British India in combination with the fact that there was then no centralized criminal intelligence agency.

Possible misinterpretation of Thuggee by the British

In her book The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India (2002), Martine van Woerkens suggests that evidence for the existence of a Thuggee 'cult' in the 19th century was in part the product of "colonial imaginings"—British fear of the little-known interior of India and limited understanding of the religious and social practices of its inhabitants.

But Krishna Dutta, in reviewing the book Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult by the British historian Dr. Mike Dash (ISBN 1-86207-604-9, 2005) in The Independent, argues:

In recent years, the revisionist view that thugee was a British invention, a means to tighten their hold in the country, has been given credence in India, France and the US, but this well-researched book objectively questions that assertion."

Dash rejects in his book skepticism about the existence of a secret network of groups with a modus operandi, different from others groups for example dacoits, in robbing travellers. To prove his point Dash refers to the excavated corpses in graves of which the hidden locations were revealed to Sleeman's team by thug informants. In addition, Dash treats the extensive and thorough documentation that Sleeman made. Dash rejects the colonial emphasis on the religious motivation for robbing. He asserts that the Thugs were highly superstitious and that they worshipped the Hindu goddess Kali, but that their faith was not very different from their contemporary non-thugs. He admits though that the thugs had certain group-specific superstitions and rituals. Instead of the religious motivation, Dash asserts that monetary gain was the main motivation for thuggee and that men sometimes became thugs due to extreme poverty.

Thuggee in popular culture

The story of Thuggee was popularized by books such as Philip Meadows Taylor's novel Confessions of a Thug, 1839, leading to the word "thug" entering the English language. Ameer Ali, the protagonist of Confessions of a Thug was said to be based on a real Thug called Feringhea. John Masters' novel The Deceivers also deals with the subject. A more recent book is George Bruce's The Stranglers: The cult of Thuggee and its overthrow in British India (1968). Dan Simmon's Song of Kali, 1985, features a Thuggee cult.

The 19th Century American writer Mark Twain discusses the Thuggee fairly extensively in chapters 9 and 10 of "Following the Equator: Volume II", 1897, THE ECCO PRESS, ISBN 0-88001-519-5.

The two most popular depictions of the cult in film are the 1939 film, Gunga Din and the 1984 Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Both films have the heroes fighting secret revivals of the cult to prevent them from resuming their reigns of terror.

In 1965, Thuggees were portrayed with bumbling malevolence in the Beatles film "Help!".

The 1968 Indian film Sunghursh, based on a story by Jnanpith Award winner Mahasweta Devi, presented the depiction of Thuggees that is considered to be very accurate.

The 1988 film version of The Deceivers, produced by Ismail Merchant and starring Pierce Brosnan, is a fictionalized account of the initial discovery and infiltration of the Thuggee sect by an imperial British administrator. Also, Italian writer Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) wrote about thugs in I Misteri della Jungla Nera (1895) Le Due tigri (1904) and other short stories.

In an episode of Highlander: The Series, "The Wrath of Kali", Duncan Macleod deals with immortal Kamir (played by Indian actor Kabir Bedi), last of the Thuggee

Christopher Moore's novel, Lamb, describes a Thuggee ritual.

The fifth episode of the short-lived Clerks: The Animated Series featured a plot twist where the Little League World Champions were kidnapped by the Thuggee, where they were forced to chip rock away from walls (much like the Thuggee in the Indiana Jones film). It is also revealed that the government, in cooperation with the Thuggee, was using a video game called Pharaoh to recruit slaves to manually build giant pyramids, as in The Last Starfighter.

The 2006 television movie Obituary, starring Josie Bissett, features many references to the thuggees and Kali.



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