The lore of Thuggee and how the British ended its reign

Published - September 22, 2014 10:22 pm IST

THUGGEE — Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India: Kim A. Wagner

THUGGEE — Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India: Kim A. Wagner

“As a thag lures a pilgrim with laddus sweet with wine

Makes him drunk and trusting takes his money and his life;

Just so, Honeybee Hari takes our love by deceit”

— Surdas (1478-1583)

The lore of the thuggee can be found in abundance in writing from ninth century Bhasarvajna to James Forbes’ Oriental Memoirs (1785). In the seventh century, during Hiuen Tsang’s famous journey to India, he was set upon by bandits on the Ganges and narrowly escaped being sacrificed to their goddess. Similarly, in 1290, Sultan of Delhi Jalal Uddin Firz Khilji expelled 1000 thags from Delhi. The great poet Kabir (1398-1448) often made use of the thag as a metaphor of the divine deceit of God. They are also referred to in the Janamsakhi-texts describing the life of Guru Nanak. (The name was variously spelt as ‘thag’ and ‘thug’ which has been retained in present day English). While Frenchman Jean de Thevenot mentioned them as “the cunningest Robbers in the World”, Englishman John Fryer described an execution of a phansigar (strangler) on the basis of a farman by the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb in 1672.

According to the conventional account of thuggee, the thugs were a fraternity of ritual stranglers who preyed upon travellers along the highways of 19th century India. Their unsuspecting victims were first deceived into joining the thugs and later at some secluded spot, strangled, plundered and buried. In a sense, a clean criminal act. Kim A. Wagner’s ‘Thuggee – Banditry and the British in early nineteenth Century India’ has written to re-inscribe the thuggee in its historical context and not merely consider it as colonial phantasmagoria. In this attempt Wagner (affectionately called by the present inhabitants of Sindouse (Sandaus in U.P.) as ‘Kim Singh’) has chronicled the thuggee phenomenon — their religious, ethnic and social background, kinship ties, customs and language as well the interaction and cooperation between different gangs. The thuggee was first encountered by the British during a period where the colonial state was still consolidating its rule and authority. With policing and law and order high on the agenda, the thuggee were seen as a blemish on the rule.

The British ‘discovery’ of Phansigars and thugs happened almost simultaneously, in 1807 and 1809 respectively. Dr. Sherwood of Madras Presidency is the first to mention a religious element in the phenomenon. According to him, they were highly superstitious and though some were Muslims, their tutelary deity was the Hindu goddess ‘cali or Mariatta’.

Wagner’s argues that thuggee did not constitute a caste-like identity, and was a livelihood resorted to by all strata of society in certain areas.

Thuggee was a seasonal occupation with the thugs leaving the village after the autumn harvest (Oct-Nov) and returning around June-July before the rains set in. The sepoys of the Company were said to be among their main targets, which was naturally perceived as a serious threat by the British. The other victims were merchants selling guns or horses to various armies. The several Hindu and Muslim pilgrims, who travelled across the country, were another set of victims.

The most valued items among the loot, such as horses or fine weapons, were always given to the ruler who patronised the thugs. They also had to bribe officials and guards at the serais and city gates. This expense was factored into the division of the loot! When the group returned to the village part of the loot was used to repay — with exorbitant interest — the zamindar or whoever had financed the expedition. The relative wealth gained by thuggee rarely permitted the thugs to abandon the profession altogether. Apart from zamindars and moneylenders, various other people also profited from system.

With the increasing reports on thuggee, the Company in 1810 passed Regulation VI which defined the penalties for zamindars who did not pass on information on crimes committed by ‘dacoits, cozauks , thugs, buddecks and other descriptions of public robbers’ and emphasised the need for zamindars and others to cooperate with the police. This was followed by several reports on the thuggee. Finally on October 13, 1830, the Governor authorised Captain Sleeman to put down the system of Thuggee. Between 1826 and 1835, a total of 1562 thugs were tried; 382 sentenced to death, 909 to transportation, 77 to imprisonment for life. In 1839, Sleeman declared that thuggee as an organised association had been effectively destroyed and even though some instance occasionally popped up over time, the thuggee campaign was over.

Wagner’s detailed study underlines the social context of the rise of thuggee and also gives a ringside view of the Company’s operations against it. With the sole exception of the absence of details of thuggee in Madras Presidency, despite repeated quotes from the writings of Dr. Sherwood, this book is entertaining and gives us an idea of the life of the predecessors of the bandits of Chambal.

THUGGEE — Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India: Kim A. Wagner; Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 995.

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