Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn

Book IX—Anti-Social Societies

I. The Thugs

294. Introductory.—Accounts of several anti-social societies have been given in Book IV., such as the Assassins, Dervishes, and others. They were introduced there because they owed their origin to the religious systems described in that Book, and therefore I deemed it advisable not to sever the connection existing between the religious and the social sects by describing them in different Books. And thus much I thought it necessary to explain, an apparent irregularity, before commencing the history of the Thugs.

295. Name and Origin.—Shortly after the conquest of Seringapatam in 1799, about a hundred robbers, called Phansigars, were apprehended in that province; but it was not known then that they belonged to a distinct class of hereditary murderers and plunderers settled in various parts of India. In 1807, between Chittoor and Arcot, several Phansigars were apprehended, and information was then obtained which ultimately led to a full knowledge of the association infamous under the name of Thugs, though the name by which they were known to one another, and also to others, was "Phansigars," that is, "men of the noose." The name Thug is said to be derived from thaga to deceive, because the Thugs get hold of their victims by luring them into false security. They were particularly numerous in Mysore, the Carnatic, in the Balaghat Districts, and in the Poliums of Chittoor. As to their origin, General Sleeman considers them descended from remnants of the army of Xerxes, which invaded Greece; but more probably their origin is more recent. The date assigned by themselves to their first establishment in India coincides with the destruction of the Assassins of Alamut. It is not improbable, in fact, that some of the fugitives who fled from the swords of the Moguls made their way to India; and the existence of Ishmaelites in India, under the name of Borahs, was known before the existence of the Thugs as an organised sect had been detected. Now the Thugs in the Ramasee, or cant of the Thugs, always call themselves Borahs, which they do probably for the purpose of disguising their real pursuit; for there is a sect, numerous in Hindustan, known by the name of Bohras, and whose members are chiefly peaceful traders. Some sect of Thugs call themselves Aulae.

296. Practices and Worship of Thugs.—One common mode of decoying young men having valuables upon them is to place a young and handsome woman by the wayside, and apparently in great grief, who by some pretended tale of misfortune draws him into the jungle, where the gang are lying in ambush, and on his appearance strangle him. The gang consists of from ten to fifty members; and they will follow or accompany the marked-out victim for days, nor attempt his murder until an opportunity offering every chance of success presents itself. After every murder they perform a religious ceremony called tupounee; and the division of the spoil is regulated by old-established laws—the man that threw the handkerchief, or roomal, gets the largest share; the man that held the hands, called the shumseea, the next largest proportion, and so on. In some gangs their property is held in common. Their crimes are committed in honour of Kali, who hates our race, and to whom the death of man is a pleasing sacrifice.

Kali (derived from Kala = Time), or Bhowany—for she is equally well known by both names—was, according to the Indian legend, born of the burning eye which Shiva, one of the persons of the Brahmin trinity, has on his forehead, whence she issued, like the Greek Minerva out of the skull of Jupiter, a perfect and full-grown being. She represents the Evil Spirit, delights in human blood, presides over plague and pestilence, and directs the storm and hurricane, and ever aims at destruction. She is represented under the most frightful effigy the Indian mind could conceive; her face is azure, streaked with yellow; her glance is ferocious; she wears her dishevelled and bristly hair displayed like the peacock's tail, and braided with green serpents. Round her neck she wears a collar, descending almost to her knees, composed of golden skulls. Her purple lips seem streaming with blood; her tusk-like teeth descend over her lower lip; she has eight or ten arms, each hand holding some murderous weapon, and sometimes a human head dripping with gore. With one foot she stands on a human corpse. She has her temples, in which the people sacrifice cocks and bullocks to her; but her priests are the Thugs, the "Sons of Death", who quench the never-ending thirst of this divine vampire. An engraving, slightly differing in some of the above details, may be seen in the first volume of the "Asiatic Researches".

297. Traditions.—Like all similar societies, the Thugs have their traditions. According to them, Kali in the beginning determined to destroy the whole human race, with the exception, however, of her faithful adorers and followers. These, taught by her, slew all men that fell into their power. The victims at first were killed by the sword, and so great was the destruction her worshippers wrought, that the whole human race would have been extinguished, had not Vishnu, the Preserver, interfered, by causing the blood thus shed to bring forth new living beings, so that the destructive action of Kali was counteracted. It was then this goddess, to nullify the good intention of Vishnu, forbade her followers to kill any more with the sword, but commanded them to resort to strangulation. With her own hands she made a human figure of clay, and animated it with her breath. She then taught her worshippers how to kill without shedding blood. She also promised them that she would always bury the bodies of their victims, and destroy all traces of them. She further endowed her chosen disciples with superior courage and cunning, so as always to ensure them the victory over those they should attack. And she kept her promise. But in the course of time corrupt manners crept in even among the Thugs, and one of them, being curious to see what Kali did with the dead bodies, watched her as she was about to remove the corpse of a traveller he had slain. Goddesses, however, cannot thus be watched on the sly. Bhowany saw the peeper, and stepping forth, thus addressed him:

"Thou hast now beheld the awful countenance of a goddess, which none can behold and live. But I shall spare thy days, though as a punishment of thy crime I shall not protect thee as I have done hitherto, and the punishment will extend to all thy brethren. The corpses of those you kill will no longer be buried or concealed by me; you yourselves will be obliged to take the necessary measures for that purpose, nor will you always be successful, though I leave you the kussee, or sacred pickaxe, to dig the graves; sometimes you will fall under the profane laws of the world, which will be your eternal punishment. Nothing will remain to you but the superior intelligence and skill I have given you, and henceforth I sliall direct you by auguries only, which you must diligently consult."

Hence their snperstitious belief in omens. They study divination by birds and jackals, and by throwing the hatchet, and as it falls so they take their route. Any animal crossing the road from left to right, on their first setting out, is considered a bad omen, and the expedition consequently is given, up for that day. The first murder on an expedition is called sonoka; the leader gives the jhirnee, or sign for strangling; the place of burial is called beyl; the victim to be strangled is called bisul if the operation presents difficulties; if easy, he is called coosul; a pair of victims are distinguished by the name of bhitree. Bungoos are river Thugs, passing up and down the Ganges, pretending to be going to or coming from holy places. They inveigle people on board their boats, and then strangle them, and throw them through holes, purposely made in the sides of the boats, into the river, after having broken the spines of their victims to prevent their recovering. This class of Thugs at one time numbered between two and three hundred members.

298. Initiation.—To be admitted into this horrible sect required a long and severe novitiate, during which the aspirant had to give the most convincing proofs of his fitness for admission. This having once been decided on, he was conducted by his sponsor to the mystical baptism, and clothed in white garments, and his brow crowned with flowers. The preparatory rite being performed, the sponsor presented him to the gurhu, or spiritual head of the sect, who, in his turn, introduced him into a room set apart for such ceremonies, where the Hyemader, or chiefs of the various gangs, awaited him. Being asked whether they will receive the candidate into the Order, and having answered in the affirmative, he and the gurhu are led out into the open air, where the chiefs place themselves in a circle around the two, and kneel down to pray. Then the gurhu rises, and lifting up his hands to heaven, says: "Bhowany! Mother of the world!" (this appellation seems very inappropriate, since she is a destroyer), whose worshippers we are, receive this Thy new servant; grant him Thy protection, and to us an omen, which assures us of Thy consent."

They remain in this position until a passing bird, quadruped, or even mere cloud, has given them this assurance; whereupon they return to the chamber, where the neophyte is invited to partake of a banquet spread out for the occasion, after which the ceremony is over. The newly-admitted member then takes the appellation of Sahib Zada, He commences his infamous career as $lughah, or gravedigger, or as belhal, or explorer of the spots most convenient for executing a projected assassination, or bhil. In this condition he remains for several years, until he has given abundant proof of his ability and good-will. He is then raised to the degree of bhuttotah, or strangler, which advancement, however, is preceded by new formalities and ceremonies. On the day appointed for the ceremony, the candidate is conducted by his gurhu into a circle formed in the sands, and surrounded by mysterious hieroglyphics, where prayers are offered up to their deity. The ceremony lasts four days, during which the candidate is allowed no other food but milk. He occupies himself in practising the immolation of victims fastened to a cross erected in the ground. On the fifth day the priest gives him the fatal noose, washed in holy water and anointed with oil, and after more religious ceremonies, he is pronounced a perfect bhuttotah. He binds himself by fearful oaths to maintain the most perfect silence on all that concerns the society, and to labour without ceasing towards the destruction of the human race. He is the rex sacrificulus, and the person he encounters, and Bhowany places in his way, the victim. Certain persons, however, are excepted from the attacks of the Thugs. The hierophant, on initiating the candidate, says to him: "Thou hast chosen, my son, the most ancient profession, the most acceptable to the deity. Thou hast sworn to put to death every human being fate throws into thy hand; there are, however, some that are exempt from our laws, and whose death would not be grateful to our deity." These belong to some particular tribes and castes, which he enumerates; persons who squint, are lame, or otherwise deformed, are also exempt; so are washer-women, for some cause not clearly ascertained; and as Kali was supposed to co-operate with the murderers, women also were safe from them, but only when travelling alone, without male protector; and orthodox Thugs date the deterioration of Thuggism from the first murder of a woman by some members of the society, after which the practice became common.

The Thugs had their saints and martyrs, Thora and Kudull being two of the most famous, who are invoked by the followers of Bhowany. Worshippers of a deity delighting in blood, those whom the English Government condemned to death, offered her their own lives with the same readiness with which they had taken those of others. They met death with indifference, nay, with enthusiasm, firmly believing that they should at once enter paradise. The only favour they asked was to be strangled or hanged; they have an intense horror of the sword and the shedding of blood; as they killed by the cord, so they wished to die by it.

299. Suppression.—When the existence of the society was first discovered, many would not believe in it; yet in course of time the proofs became so convincing that it could no longer be ignored, and the British Government took decided measures to suppress the Thugs. A Thuggee school of industry in connection with the Lahore gaol was established, but closed again about 1882, the prisoners being allowed their freedom under ticket-of-leave. The crimes some of them had committed, indeed, almost exceed belief. One Thug, who was hanged at Lucknow in 1825, was legally convicted of having strangled six hundred persons. Another, an octogenarian, confessed to nine hundred and ninety-nine murders, and declared that respect for the profession alone had prevented him from making it a full thousand, because a round number was considered among them rather vulgar.

But in spite of vigorous measures on the part of Great Britain—there is a regular government department in India for the suppression of Thuggism—the sect could not be entirely destroyed; it is a religious order, and as such has a vitality greater than that of political or merely criminal associations. It was still in existence but a few years ago, and no doubt has its adherents even now, though the modern Thugs resort to drugging and poisoning, instead of strangling. It always had protectors in some of the native princes, who shared their booty, and such may now be the case. The society has a temple at Mirzapore, on the Ganges.

A Thug, who during the Indian rebellion turned informer, confessed to having strangled three women, besides, perhaps, one hundred men. Yet this fellow was most pleasing and amiable in appearance and manners; but, when relating his deeds of blood, he would speak of them with all the enthusiasm of an old warrior remembering heroic feats, and all the instincts of the tiger seemed to reawaken in him. In spite of this, however, he caused some two hundred of his old companions to be apprehended by our government.

When the Prince of Wales visited the portion of Lahore gaol allotted to the Thugs, a hoary old criminal, named Soba Singh, admitted with a sort of pride that he had strangled thirty-six persons. Two of the prisoners showed His Royal Highness how Thuggee was performed.

300. Recent Instance of Thuggism.—Sharfu, alias Sharif-ad-din, was hanged in the Punjab on January 6, 1882. He had become a Thug about the year 1867, and from that date to 1879 he lived by poisoning travellers. He pleaded guilty to ninety-six charges. The Punjab police published his biography, with notes, to assist officers in arresting the members of the gang who were then known to be at large.