The hashtag “Thug Life” is extremely popular on social media however the word itself owes its origins to the Sanskrit word “Sthaga” which means to conceal. The word found it’s way into the English Language in 1810 during the British Imperial rule in India. Since then, thugs have fascinated the popular culture and consciousness.
Victorian England fantasized and romanticized every oriental phenomenon. Thugs were dangerous, menacing and brutal killers, in addition to this they belonged to an exotic far away land inhabited by God-forsaken pagans and barbarians. They were ideal literary villains, like Dracula and pirates. A simple google search will lead one to several books written on these deceptive gangs of assassins. In the eyes of the English authors, they were groups of savages who worshiped a fierce looking Goddess and strangled every throat in their way.
It was the second decade of the early nineteenth century, i.e. 1820s. After several years of denial, the British Government of India finally took cognizance of the fact that several thousands of travelers missing on the countryside roads was not an accident.
A Bengal Army Officer decided to do something about it. Sir William Henry Sleeman was the first District Magistrate to wage a war against this secret nationwide cult. Lack of support and belief from his superiors, a formidable silence of the Indian society and secret support of the Indian royalty to the cult were only a part of his problems. But, with innovative approach to policing and “Thugging the Thug”, helped him curtail this countrywide menace to a great extent. By the end of the nineteenth century India was declared free of the Thugs. Sleeman is still revered in many parts of the country, the village Sleemanabad (named after him) in Madhya Pradesh bores testimony to the fact.
Sparing only women, children, fakirs and god-men, the Thugs had terrorized every traveler who took the highways. Once the season was over they would resume their normal lives, as farmers, carpenters, goldsmiths and noblemen. One could never know if the friend one broke bread with in the morning had spent the previous night murdering men and then burying them in mass graves. Growing up, I had heard several blood chilling tales passed down from the members of the older generation in my family.
So if ever you are time travelling in eighteenth century India, watch out for a sash wearing stranger with friendly smile and be warned not to fall for his charming words.
After several films on dacoits during the seventies and the eighties, Bollywood has once again turned to Indian History for inspiration. Aamir Khan’s next is “Thugs of Hindostan” based on the book “Confessions of a Thug” written by Philip Meadows. The same book I referred to write my section on a gang of Thugs who killed by strangling their victims using a red handkerchief.
Read more about them in my upcoming book.
If you like History and fiction, my book promises a good mixture of both. Watch out this space for more updates. Watch the movie and read my book!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton