ETHNONYMS: Dacoo, Dacoit; formerly called Phansigar or Phanseegur, meaning "strangler"
The term "Thug" comes from thag, meaning "cheat, swindler, robber," and it refers to professional highwaymen who for centuries were the scourge of wealthier travelers throughout India. These men worked swiftly to win the confidence of their victims, then strangled them with a scarf or noose and robbed the bodies, which they immediately buried to avoid detection. They formed gangs of 10-200 men, organized into a sort of confederacy. Thugee, as this "trade" was called, was not simply a profitable criminal activity—it was a traditional calling. By wearing religious garb the Thug maintained an air of respectability. Under most Hindu and Muslim rulers this was regarded as a regular profession, and Thugs paid city taxes. Thugs believed that their crimes did honor to the goddess Kali (the Hindu goddess of destruction) whom they worshiped before each attempt to befriend and then kill travelers. Consecration of the pickax and the offering of sugar were important prior to an assassination, and after the deed some of the gains were set aside as a reward for Kali. In turn, the goddess expressed her wishes to Thugs through a complicated system of omens.
The earliest authentic reference to Thugs dates to about AD. 1290, and India's Thugee and Dacoity Department was closed down only in 1904. Thugee was finally brought under control for the British administration of India around 1848 by Sir William Sleeman. Like organized crime elsewhere, the confederacy of Thugs persisted for so long because of its superior organization, secrecy, and the security offered everywhere by "retired" elderly Thugs, who continued to operate as spies or cooks. In his book, Ramaseeana (1836), Sleeman recorded the peculiar argot used by Thugs to maintain the secrecy of their intentions, and thus he introduced the word thug to English dictionaries. The crime of dacoity, however, still continues in some remote areas of South Asia. Now it is defined simply as brigandage committed by armed gangs of robbers, called dacoits or dacoos. By law there must be five or more in a gang for the robbery to be considered dacoity. Both thugee and dacoity were usually punished by hanging or banishment for life. Some of the criminals repented and converted to Christianity.
Russell, R. V., and Hira Lal (1916). "Thug." In The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, edited by R. V. Russell and Hira Lal. Vol. 4, 558-587. London: Macmillan. Reprint. 1969. Oosterhout: Anthropological Publications.
Sleeman, William (1836). Ramaseeana; or a Vocabulary of the Peculiar Language Used by the Thugs. . . . Calcutta: G. H. Hultmann, Military Orphan Press.
Tucker, Francis (1961). The Yellow Scarf: The Story of the Life of Thugee Sleeman or Major-General Sir William Henry Sleeman, K.C.B': (1778-1856 ) of the Bengal Army and the Indian Political Service. Reprint. 1977. London: White Lion Publishers.
thug / [unvoicedth]əg/ • n. 1. a violent person, esp. a criminal. 2. (Thug) hist. a member of a religious organization of robbers and assassins in India. Devotees of the goddess Kali, the Thugs waylaid and strangled their victims, usually travelers, in a ritually prescribed manner. They were suppressed by the British in the 1830s. DERIVATIVES: thug·ger·y / -gərē/ n. thug·gish adj. thug·gish·ly adv. thug·gish·ness n.
Thugs (thŭgz), former Indian religious sect of murderers and robbers, also called Phansigars [stranglers]. Membership was primarily hereditary and included both Hindus and Muslims, but all were devotees of the Hindu goddess Kali and committed their murders as sacrifices to her. A pickax (representing the tooth of Kali, which she was said to have bestowed upon the organization) was consecrated after the victim's grave had been dug with it. For most of the year Thugs followed ordinary occupations, but in the autumn they went about in bands, disguised as merchants or religious mendicants. When they encountered wealthy travelers, they would ingratiate themselves and await an opportunity to kill. The murder was effected by strangling the victim with a scarf reserved for the purpose. Women and members of certain low castes, such as sweepers, washermen, and musicians, were usually exempted from attack. The Thugs, whose activities are known as far back as the 13th cent., were protected by their strong organization and by local officials with whom they would divide the spoils. Early in the period of British rule in India the decision was made to destroy the Thugs. Sir William Sleeman accomplished the repression (1829–48) by mass arrests and executions.
See G. L. Bruce, The Stranglers (1969).