Major william sleeman- the great warrior against Thugs




In my earlier writing I attempted to introduce you with the most dreadful cult of  Thagees prevailing in the early nineteenth century in India.  Atrocity and dreadful violence done by Thugs were so far recorded as early as 1820s.  However, a little was known about their cult as well as their collective operation. Thugs were so clever in their action that they left no proof of their involvement in their heinous killing operations. Under this situation it was very difficult to route out the crime-class.  At this juncture, William Sleeman arrived in India. In 1835 he joined as a Superintendent for suppressing of Thuggi and Dacoity (robbery). By this time Thuggee Act was passed (1836).

Excerpts of the Act run as:

“ whoever shall be proved to have belonged ,either before or after passing of the Act, to any gang of Thugs, either within or without the territories of the East India Company, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, with hard labour . And… no count shall,on a trial of any person accused of the offence ,,require any Fatwa from any Law Officer”.


Joining the Office, Sleeman  understood that proof of thugees could only come  from thugs themselves.  Upon this conviction he wanted mapping of thug-activities with the aid-of convicted as well as  confessed thugs.  To his courageous  vows he got the full support of his wife-Am lie de Fantenne.


Sleeman waged a decade long campaign against thugs. In the beginning he caught hold a few thugs and by his able stewardship he transformed some of them to act as approvers. With those approvers, he mastered the  language of the under-world and knew  more about their organizational and criminal aspects.  On the basis of approvers’ disclosure  he wrote  an historical documentary ,viz; The Thugs or Phasigars of India (1839). This writing gives  superstitions, crime-behavior,  vocabulary of thug-languages etc. Till now that book is regarded as the authentic source on thugs.


Knowing details about Thugs , Sleeman  fought tooth and nail against them. Finally, he made the country free from the tyranny  of Thugs.  Sleeman will remain as one of the best dedicated  friends in India. 







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Thugs-a dreadful cult

May 4, 2009


Thugs- A dreadful  fraternity cult



There are many Indian words, which received place in English vocabulary.  Thugs is such a word. It was introduced in the English, probably in the early nineteenth century.

Thugs derived from the Sanskrit word Thuggee meaning to conceal. Thugs represent a hereditary cult with both Hindus and Muslims who practiced large-scale robbery and murder of travelers by strangulation. The practice passed from father to son with the women of the household being kept ignorant of the cult activity.


The Thugs were a well-organized union of professional assassins, who in a small group traveled in various guises through India and made friendship with the wealthier classes –acted as good companions of them and when a favorable opportunity arose they strangled the victims by a handkerchief or noose around the neck. As they murder using noose, they were frequently called phansigars or noose-operators.


The thugs, whose origins are obscure, flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly during the early period of the company rule. Originating from some criminal tribes of north and south India, the thugs subsequently expanded their operational domain to almost all of India during the transition period marking the end of the nawabi regime and establishment of that of the British.


Some referred to them originating from seven Muslim tribes and Hindus appeared to have been associated with them at only in the early days of Islam.  Whatever may be their religious creed Thugs used to worship Kali- the Hindu goddess of destruction. Assassination for gain was a religious duty for them and was considered a holy and honorable profession, in which moral feeling did not come into play.


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 sultan about 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).


In 1816, Dr. Robert C. Sherwood  published an article in the Madras Literary Gazette. Sherwood’s article was the first major testimony confirming the existence of a cult which committed murder in the name of Kali, Sherwood wrote:

While Europeans have journeyed through the extensive territories subject to the Government of Fort St. George, with a degree of security nowhere surpassed, the path of the native traveller has been beset with perils little known or suspected, into which numbers annually falling, have mysteriously disappeared, the victims of villains as subtle, rapacious and cruel as any who are to be met with in the records of human depravity. The Phansigars, or stranglers, are thus designated from the Hindustani word Phansi a noose. In the more northern parts of India, these murderers are called Thugs, signifying deceivers: in the Tamul language, they are called Ari Tulucar, or Mussulman noosers: in Canarese, Tanti Calleru, implying thieves, who use a wire or cat-gut noose…. Skilled in the arts of deception, Phansigars enter into conversation and insinuate themselves, by obsequious attentions, into the confidence of travellers of all descriptions…. When the Phansigars determine . to attack a traveller, they usually propose to him, under the specious plea of mutual safety or for the sake of society, to travel together . and on arriving at a convenient place and a fit opportunity presenting . one of the gang puts a rope or sash round the neck of the unfortunate persons, while others assist in depriving him of his life.


What possible motivation could drive such a horrific organization? Thug lore, as recounted by Sleeman, offered the following rationale:

Once on a time the world was infested with a monstrous demon named Rukt Bij-dana, who devoured mankind as fast as they were created. So gigantic was his stature, that the deepest pools of the ocean reached no higher than his waist. This horrid prodigy Kali cut in twain with her sword, but from every drop of blood that fell to the ground there sprang a new demon. For some reason she went on destroying them, till the hellish brood multiplied so fast that she waxed hot and weary with her endless task. She paused for a while, and, from the sweat brushed off one of her arms, she created two men, to whom she gave a rumal, or handkerchief, and commanded them to strangle the demons. When they had slain them all, they offered to return the rumal, but the goddess bade them keep it and transmit it to their posterity, with the injunction to destroy all men who were not of their kindred.

Accounts of a secret cult of murderers roaming India go back at least as far as the 13th century, but to modern history their story usually begins with the entrance of the British Empire in the early 1800s. For some years, India’s British administrators had been hearing reports of large numbers of travelers disappearing on the country’s roads; but, while disturbing, such incidents were not entirely unusual for the time. It was not until the discovery of a series of eerily similar mass graves across India that the truth began to dawn. Each site was piled with the bodies of individuals ritually murdered and buried in the same meticulous fashion, leading to an inescapable conclusion: these killings were the work of a single, nation-spanning organization. It was known as Thuggee.

At its root, the word “Thuggee” means “deceivers,” and this name hints at the methods employed by the cult. Bands of Thugs traveled across the country posing as pilgrims, merchants, soldiers, or even royalty, in groups numbering anywhere from a few men to several hundred. Offering protection or company, they would befriend fellow travelers and slowly build their confidence along the road. Often the impostors would journey for days and hundreds of miles with their intended victims, patiently waiting for an opportunity to strike. When the time was right, typically while their targets were encamped and at their most relaxed, a signal would be given—reportedly “Bring the tobacco”—and the Thugs would spring. Each member had a well-honed specialty; some distracted their quarry, some made noise or music to mask any cries, while others guarded the campsite from intruders and escapees. Thugs of the highest rank performed the actual killings. As a prohibition against shedding blood was at the core of Thuggee belief, the murders were performed in a bloodless fashion. The usual method was strangulation with a rumal, the yellow silk handkerchief each thug wore tied around his waist; but an occasional neck-breaking or poisoning helped to add some variety. It was a matter of honor for the Thugs to let no one escape alive once they had been selected for death.


. In Bengal, the thugs operated mostly on the river traffic. The river thugs usually killed their victims by immersing their heads into water.

. The administration of Wiliam Bentinck launched a massive civil and military offensive against the thugs. Hundreds of them were captured, tried and executed publicly.