The Thugs of Hindostan: the thuggee cult of British India


Diwali 2018 is all set to be a blockbuster weekend, at least for the Bollywood Box Office. For, with the magnum opus Thugs of Hindostan awaiting release, expectations are running high among movie buffs as for the first time ever two giants of Hindi cinema will be co starring as leads. Plus, the thrilling story line and adrenaline pumping action and adventure sequences also has done much to lend enough credibility for the film to be touted as a ‘never-seen-before cinematic experience on the big screen’.

With a stellar cast in Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif and Fatima Sana Sheikh, Thugs of Hindostan have had a massive response when its trailer was released some time ago. Interestingly, even before its release the film has already been reviewed as a blockbuster with expectations of sky high earnings,riding mainly on the anticipation generated by a uniquely gripping narrative that borders on the thuggee cult of British India.

thugs of hindostan

A 1795 historical fiction story set in the Hindostan under the British rule, the movie revolves around the thug culture that had posed a serious threat to the British administration. Bachchan’s character in the movie Khudabaksh Azaad is based on the captured thug Feringhea, also known as Syeed Amir Ali, Khuda Buksh, Deahuct Undun and Daviga Persaud, that has been captured in Philip Meadows Taylor’s 1839 novel, Confessions of a Thug.

The thugs or the thuggees had been in existence in India since long back and refers to an organised gang of professional robbers and murderers. In recorded history since 1356, the thugs are a secret cult of both Hindu and Muslim followers who worshipped Kali as the ruling deity of their domain. While the British viewed Thuggees as nothing more than a ritual-murder by the worshippers, there have been records that attribute the Thuggee cult to the British administration.

Goddess Kali
Source: Imgur

Interestingly, the Thugs had a rather methodical style of operation. Gaining the confidence of the travelers by being acquainted with them while plotting their doom used to be the prevalent way of their ‘work’. Equivalently, these Thugs were equally particular about whom they chose or defied as their potential victims. While women and children were out of bounds as victims, patients ailing from leprosy or other physical ailments were also generally provided respite from the Thugs’ wrath.

Also, there were certain professions like those of elephant drivers, sellers or carriers of oil, and those accompanied by cattle (an animal sacred to Hindus) that were unventured territories for the robbers. Religious ascetics as also followers of the Sikh religion generally managed to escape the treachery and gore of the Thugs. These norms were held in such high esteem by the Thugs that when they were captured or exposed, they often blamed their misfortune on violation of one of these taboos.

Mostly, the Thugs would resort to strangling of their victims using a handkerchief or noose which led to them being also called as Phansigars.  With broken or severed bones and tendons to allow for easier disposal of the corpses, the Thugs also resorted to a rather weird custom of stabbing the already dead victim in the eyes to nullify any chance at revival.

Source: Needull in a haystack

Interestingly, the strangulation ‘tactic’ of the Thugs seems to be deeply ingrained in a rule of the Mughal empire, under which bloodshed would be the basis for being awarded with a death penalty. And since the Thugs would not resort to shedding the blood of their victims, what would follow in the event of a capture would be imprisonment and not death.

This thug culture has been a popular occurrence in popular culture. Films like The Stranglers of Bombay (1959), Sunghursh (1968), The Deceivers (1988?), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the upcoming Thugs of Hindostan proclaim the impact of Thuggees in the public psyche.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Source: Den of Geek

While in literature, the Thuggee cult found depiction in books like Phoenix Force: Night of the Thuggee by Gar Wilson, George Bruce’s The Stranglers, Kim A. Wagner’s Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth Century India, Glen Cook’s dark fantasy series The Black Company, et al.

Phoenix Force
Source: Fantastic Fiction

A cult as adventurous as that of these Thuggees  is all set to find depiction in perhaps the most gigantic of avatars in Bollywood when Thugs of Hindostan finally releases this November 8th amidst Diwali fireworks. A remarkable affair indeed!