The Thuggee, or Thugs of India, were history’s most notorious and murderous cult to ever exist. Taking their name from Sanskrit, the word Thuggee means to conceal or to hide. Some historians speculate that the Thuggees were the first organized crime ring, believed to have began in the year 1300 (though they may have formed earlier than that), the Thuggees terrorized the well traveled routes of India, until they were virtually eradicated in the 1800s during British occupation.
Often Thuggees would travel around India befriending travelers. They would charm them and gain their trust, then at night while the travelers slept, they would tie silk scarves or nooses around their necks, strangle them, and collect all of the traveler’s valuables. To the Thuggees, there were no immoral implications on what they were doing, because they regarded themselves as spiritual beings selected to offer balance to the world, according to Hindu belief. Even stranger is that not all Thuggees were Hindu, some members also claimed Muslim beliefs. Regardless of their members’ religious affiliation, all pledged their allegiance to the Hindu Goddess Kali.
In Hindu traditions, Kali is seen as the goddess of death, but also represents time, change, power, and destruction. In early times she was represented as the destroyer of dark forces, but is has also been depicted as a dark and violent entity, such as slaying men on a battlefield. The Thuggees only murdered people by means of strangulation, then buried the bodies in a ceremonial fashion. By strangling their victims, no blood would be lost from the body, and it could be used as an offering to the Goddess Kali.
Like any cult there were certain rules that the Thuggees had to adhere to in order to follow their righteous path. For instance, it was believed to be wrong to rob someone without first murdering them. Additionally, women and children were not allowed to be murdered. Sometimes the children of murdered travelers would be taken in and groomed to become Thuggees themselves one day.
Due to the secretive and guarded nature of their organization, Thuggees were often highly regarded men within Indian society. Thuggees had their own language they spoke to one another in and used secret hand signals to communicate in order to identify other members around India. All members played a role within the group. Older or sickly members would often work as lookouts, while the younger members would con the travelers, another member would be chosen to commit the murder, and others would help with the burial. Children were often kept near them in order to avoid suspicions about the group.
Although there had been some mention of the Thuggees within Indian literature dating back to 1356, it wasn’t until the British occupation of India during the 1800s that the group began to gain notoriety. British authority Sir William Henry Sleeman was the first to propose action be taken against the secret organization. Sleeman began a rigorous campaign to eliminate both the Thuggees and Daicoits (another criminal organization from India and Burma). He formed a special police task force to investigate and profile possible members of both organizations respectively, and implemented harsh punishments against those suspected of being associated with either group.
By the mid-1800s Sleeman’s efforts had nearly halted all Thuggee operations. The capture and execution nearly 1200 individuals with Thuggee ties, along with incentives for associates to turn in other members, made it impossible for the organization thrive. Improvements in security for Indian traders and merchants allowed Britain to secure the loyalty and trust of India during the occupation. Since no records were kept it is impossible to know exactly how many travelers died at the hand of the Thuggees, but it is believed to range between several hundred thousand to over a million, making them the most blood thirsty cult the world has ever known.