It’s often forgotten that the word ‘thug’ once had a very specific meaning — one so thrillingly and gothically nasty, that it was the reason it entered English in the first place. The Thugs were Indian roadside bandits from what is now Madhya Pradesh in central India, who befriended unwary travellers only to turn on them, strangle and rob them. The word comes from the Sanskrit ‘sthag’, meaning to deceive or trick.
Accounts of them arrived in Britain in the 1830s. The story went that for centuries during the dry season from October to March, the Thugs travelled in large gangs across the lonely roads of India. Scouts would select likely victims, then the group would take on a disguise: musicians, or Sikh merchants or high-caste pilgrims perhaps. Among the Thugs, there was an inveigler or deceiver, often the chief or jemadar of the gang, whose role it was to charm and persuade other travellers to join them. The gang might travel with their marks for a day or a week. Then, one evening, as everyone sat round the fire, the stranglers, or bhurtotes, and two helpers would quietly position themselves behind each victim. The Thug leader would make a sign — calling for tobacco perhaps — and the stranglers would throw a special orange scarf, the rumal, around the victims’ necks and immediately garrot them, their helpers grabbing hold of the victim’s arms so they couldn’t fight back. Thugs prided themselves on the speed, precision and silence with which they worked. No one was spared, the victims just a few more of the disappeared on Indian’s long empty roads.
The bodies were stripped of all identification and thrown into round graves dug beforehand, their stomachs cut open to disperse any gases produced during decomposition that might attract attention, while their possessions were taken off by a small group to be divided up later.
Two more things made the Thugs particularly, vividly horrible. One was the scale of their killing: at one point it was estimated that over the centuries they had committed over one million murders. (More realistic estimates now put the figure at somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000.) One single Thug named Buhram, apparently confessed to over 900 murders. The other —described by their nemesis and chronicler, the remarkable and now largely-forgotten British administrator, William Sleeman —was that they murdered in the name of the goddess Kali, the many-armed, black-faced Hindu goddess of death and destruction, who wore a necklace of severed heads. They said she fed off the blood of their victims. Sleeman also claimed that many Thug gangs were actively protected by local Indian aristocrats in return for a share of their spoils.
Sleeman’s descriptions of the Thugs caught the imagination of 1830s Britain. They became a byword for the dark fascinating otherness of the East and of the evils of Hinduism (as well as a useful justification of British rule), which the British wilfully misunderstood. In 1839, Confessions of a Thug, a now unreadable gothic novel by another former Indian hand, Philip Meadows Taylor, became an instant best-seller: Queen Victoria was apparently a fan.
Since the 1960s, however, some Indian and British historians have begun to suggest that the Thugs never really existed — or at least not in the way that Sleeman described them, that they were a convenient ‘colonial fear,’ their cohesiveness and organisation and scale vastly exaggerated by the British to justify their occupation of India. In Hindustani, ‘Thug’ originally meant not murderer, but trickster or conman. In Indian folk memory a Thug was more likely to steal your horse than murder you. The subject is still deeply controversial and debated today.
In Britain the word long ago lost its India connotations. It was my mother-in-law who told me about them about 20 years ago. She had spent 12 years in Chennai (then Madras) and talked fascinatingly about them, and about Sleeman, whom she claimed far from being a blameless colonial hero, had in fact used torture to extract confessions.
The subject intrigued me, but at the time I was writing non-fiction. Then in 2010, having taken fifteen years to write two big tomes of historical biography, the lure of Sleeman and the unknowability of the truth about the Thugs got too much for me, and I decided to write the thriller about them that had been sloshing about in my head for years. In writing it I came to think that the phrase ‘historical mystery’ is a kind of tautology. All history writing has to accept the ultimate unknowability of the past. It’s just that in fiction you get to play with it.