Down Memory Lane | History & Culture

Sites of Delhi’s secret thug ritual

The oral history around the ways of the thugee community

There is a mosque in Kutcha Tihar, West Delhi, which gossip says, marks the site of the prayer house where the thugs took their secret oath in the last century though the building does not look so old maybe because of renovation over the years. Things have changed a great deal since then and the fearsome band of men who practised thugee no longer pose a danger to society, their place having been taking by the modern-day desperadoes. Still, those who claim to be in the know cannot think of them without a shudder.

It is on record that during the 14th century 1,000 thugs were captured and hanged in the streets of Delhi. And, 200 years later Sher Shah Suri organised a cavalry of 1,200 men to keep them at bay. Akbar and his successors also launched widespread drives against the thugs, though it was only in the 19th century that Sir W. H. Sleeman succeeded in wiping them out after a relentless operation lasting seven years.

The thugs used to travel to Delhi before Dussehra, and the oath-taking took place just after Ravana and his kinsmen had met their preordained fate. Ceremony over, the recruits were taught the secret vocabulary known as Ramasee, which consisted of phrases like ‘Ali Khan Bhai Salaam’, a sign of mutual recognition. Later a guru, an expert strangler, would teach them the art of throwing the handkerchief, known as the roomal round the victim’s neck. It was a large piece of cloth and a sharp wrench with it killed the victim in an instant, without the slightest noise. But for this they had to wait for a good omen and the command word “paan” (blood red).

Meer Sahib Ameer Ali, who alone killed 900 people, had acquired such mastery in throwing the roomal that the victim was dead before his body hit the ground. Ameer Ali was born at Morena, near Agra, and brought up by a group of thugs who had killed his father and mother while they were on their way to Indore. Ameer became such a notorious thug that his name struck terror even in the hearts of the officers sent out against him.

A huge reward was announced for his capture and he was finally betrayed by his own men. Ameer Ali, however, turned approver and saved his neck from the gallows.

In his confessions, Ameer Ali mentions visits to Delhi for the initiation ceremony of the recruits, and the masjid where they stayed. The thugs, incidentally, were both Muslims and Hindus who worshipped Kali, the goddess of destruction. It is interesting to note that people of the so-called lower castes, lepers, nanbais (roti sellers), barbers and Sikhs were never killed by the thugs. Women too were generally spared and also eunuchs and the handicapped.

The main place frequented by them was the Kali Temple in Kalkaji which boasts of a history that goes back 3,000 years, although the oldest existing portions of it date to 1764-1771 when the Marathas were in power and the Mughal ruler of Delhi, Shah Alam, was a puppet in their hands. During this time the Marathas were able to restore many old temples and shrines which had been lying neglected during the Muslim rule. They also tried to control the ravages of the thugs.

Looking at the present-day Kalkaji temple one may find it hard to believe that this shrine to Kali is so old. Folklore is replete with tales of the Kalkaji Temple, and one does not know where legend ends and history begins.

One story says that a king who had lost several battles to an invader took shelter at the spot where he lost his army. Tired and exhausted after the battle in the day, he fell asleep and dreamt of the goddess Kali asking him to try his luck again. When the king got up in the morning, he found to his surprise that the troops he thought he had lost had returned.

He led them to battle again and succeeded in routing the enemy. Despite his heady success he did not forget the goddess and built a temple in her honour. Situated about 14 km from Delhi proper, the temple still has an idol of Kali, draped in red silk brocade, which is enclosed by a marble railing. People flock to it in large numbers every Tuesday, when a small fair springs up near the temple. But the big fairs are held on the eighth day of Chait and Asar, the first one Holi and the second just before the beginning of the rainy month of Sawan.

Small red flags decorate the temple and the belief lingers that some of these were the ones that were offered by the thugs and are made not of paper but the roomals they had used for strangling rich wayfarers whom they killed and looted. But then oral history thrives on gossip and not facts.

The writer is a veteran chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 9:10:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/sites-of-delhis-secret-thug-ritual/article30605805.ece

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