Thuggees, a Sanskrit word meaning concealment, were an organized gang of professional assassins – sometimes described as the world’s first mafia – who operated from the 13th to the 19th centuries in India. Members of the fanatical religious group, who were infamous for their ritualistic assassinations carried out in the name of the Hindu Goddess Kali, were known as Thugs, a word that passed into common English during the British occupation of India.
Thuggees worked by joining groups of travellers and gaining their trust before surprising them in the night and typically strangling them with a handkerchief or noose, a quick and quiet method, which left no blood and required no special weapons. They would then rob their victim and bury them carefully.
Their crimes involved a high degree of teamwork and co-ordination both during the infiltration phase and at the moment of attack. Each member of the gang had a special function such as luring travellers with charming words, acting as a lookout, or taking the role of the killer.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Thuggees were responsible for approximately two million deaths, however estimations vary widely since there is no reliable source to confirm when the practice first began.
The first known record of the Thugs as an organized group, as opposed to ordinary thieves, is in Ẓiyāʾ-ud-Dīn Baranī’s History of Fīrūz Shāh dated to around 1356. Although the Thugs traced their origin to seven Muslim tribes, Hindus also appear to have been associated with them from an early period. The Hindu members worshipped the goddess of destruction and renewal, Kali, and for at least some of the Thuggees, this formed the basis of their actions, as it is said that they believed they were helping Kali maintain the worldly balance of good and evil. However, their Hindu faith was not very different from their contemporary non-Thugs, and the fact that some Thugs were Muslims also complicates the issue.
There is evidence, however, that all Thuggee assassins were united by common superstitions and rituals, which led to the gang being branded a cult or sect. The fraternity possessed a jargon of their own (Ramasi), as well as certain signs by which its members recognized each other in the most remote parts of India. They were also bound by a set of rules, such as the prohibition to steal a person’s property without killing them in accordance with ritual first. Brahmans were not killed because of their purity, killing of the sick was considered an unworthy sacrifice, and women were not killed because they were considered to be incarnations of Kali.
Finally, after at least six centuries of wreaking havoc across India, the days of the Thugs came to an end. Yet today, their reputation lives on in their name, now widely used throughout the world to refer to aggressive and violent young criminals.