The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India Volume IV Part 49

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12. _Belief in divine support_.

13. _Theory of Thuggee as a religious sect_.

14. _Wors.h.i.+p of Kali_.

15. _The sacred pickaxe_.

16. _The sacred gur (sugar)_.

17. _Wors.h.i.+p of ancestors_.

18. _Fasting_.

19. _Initiation of a novice_.

20. _Prohibition of murder of women_.

21. _Other of persons not killed_.

22. _Belief in omens_.

23. _Omens and taboos_.

24. _Nature of the belief in omens_.

25. _Suppression of Thuggee_.

1. Historical notice

_Thug, Phansigar._--The famous community of murderers who were accustomed to infest the high-roads and strangle travellers for their property. The Thugs are, of course, now extinct, having been finally suppressed by measures taken under the direction of Colonel Sleeman between 1825 and 1850. The only existing traces of them are a small number of persons known as Goranda or Goyanda in Jubbulpore, the descendants of Thugs employed in the school of industry which was established at that town. These work honestly for their living and are believed to have no marked criminal tendencies. In the course of his inquiries, however, Colonel Sleeman collected a considerable ma.s.s of information about the Thugs, some of which is of ethnological interest, and as the works in which this is contained are out of print and not easily accessible, it seems desirable to record a portion of it here. The word Thug signifies generically a cheat or robber, while Phansigar, which was the name used in southern India, is derived from _phansi_, a noose, and means a strangler. The form of robbery and murder practised by these people was probably of considerable antiquity, and is referred to as follows by a French traveller, Thevenot, in the sixteenth century:

"Though the road I have been speaking of from Delhi to Agra be tolerable yet it hath many inconveniences. One may meet with tigers, panthers and lions upon it, and one can also best have a care of robbers, and above all things not to suffer anybody to come near one upon the road. The cunningest robbers in the world are in that country. They use a certain slip with a running noose which they can cast with so much sleight about a man's neck, when they are within reach of him, that they never fail, so that they can strangle him in a trice. They have another cunning trick also to catch travellers with. They send out a handsome woman upon the road, who with her hair dishevelled seems to be all in tears, sighing and complaining of some misfortune which she pretends has befallen her. Now, as she takes the same way that the traveller goes he falls easily into conversation with her, and finding her beautiful, offers her his a.s.sistance, which she accepts; but he hath no sooner taken her up behind him on horseback, but she throws the snare about his neck and strangles him, or at least stuns him until the robbers who lie hid come running to her a.s.sistance and complete what she hath begun. But besides that, there are men in those quarters so skilful in casting the snare, that they succeed as well at a distance as near at hand; and if an ox or any other beast belonging to a caravan run away, as sometimes it happens, they fail not to catch it by the neck." [677]

This pa.s.sage seems to demonstrate an antiquity of three centuries for the Thugs down to 1850. But during the period over which Sir William Sleeman's inquiries extended women never accompanied them on their expeditions, and were frequently even, as a measure of precaution, left in ignorance of the profession of their husbands.

2. Thuggees depicted in the caves of Ellora

The Thugs themselves believed that the operations of their trade were depicted in the carvings of the Ellora caves, and a noted leader, Feringia, and other Thugs spoke of these carvings as follows: "Every one of the operations is to be seen there: in one place you see men strangling; in another burying the bodies; in another carrying them off to the graves. Whenever we pa.s.sed near we used to go and see these caves. Every man will there find his trade described and they were all made in one night.

"Everybody there can see the secret operations of his trade; but he does not tell others of them; and no other person can understand what they mean. They are the works of G.o.d. No human hands were employed on them. That everybody admits."

Another Thug: "I have seen there the Sotha (inveigler) sitting upon the same carpet as the traveller, and in close conversation with him, just as we are when we worm out their secrets. In another place the strangler has got his _rumal_ (handkerchief) over his neck and is strangling him; while another, the Chamochi, is holding him by the legs." I do not think there is any reason to suppose that these carvings really have anything to do with the Thugs.

3. Origin of the Thugs

The Thugs did not apparently ever const.i.tute a distinct caste like the Badhaks, but were recruited from different of the population. In northern and southern India three-fourths or more, and in Central India about a half, were Muhammadans, whether genuine or the descendants of converted Hindus. The Muhammadan Thugs consisted of seven clans, Bhais, Barsote, Kachuni, Hattar, Garru, Tandel and Rathur: "And these, by the common consent of all Thugs throughout India, whether Hindus or Muhammadans, are admitted to be the most ancient and the great original trunk upon which all the others have at different times and in different places been grafted." [678]

These names, however, are of Hindu and not of Muhammadan origin; and it seems probable that many of the Thugs were originally Banjaras or cattle-dealers and Kanjars or gipsies. One of the Muhammadan Thugs told Colonel Sleeman that, "The Arcot gangs will never intermarry with our families, saying that we once drove bullocks and were itinerant tradesmen, and consequently of lower caste." [679] Another man said [680] that at their marriages an old matron would sometimes repeat as she threw down the _tulsi_ or basil, "Here's to the spirits of those who once led bears and monkeys; to those who drove bullocks and marked with the _G.o.dini_ (tattooing-needle); and those who made baskets for the head." These are the regular occupations of the Kanjars and Berias, the gipsy castes who are probably derived from the Doms. And it seems not unlikely that these people may have been the true progenitors of the Thugs. There is at present a large section of Muhammadan Kanjars who are recognised as members of the caste by the Hindu section. Colonel Sleeman was of opinion that the Kanjars also practised murder by strangling, but not as a regular profession; for this would have been too dangerous, as they were accustomed to wander about with their wives and all their belongings, and the disappearance of many travellers in the locality of their camps would naturally excite suspicion. Whereas the true Thugs resided in villages and towns and many of them had other ostensible occupations, their periodical excursions for robbery and murder being veiled under the pretence of some necessary journey. But the Kanjars may have changed their mode of life on taking to this profession, and their adroitness in other forms of crime, such as killing and carrying off cattle, would make them likely persons to have discovered the advantages of a system of murder of travellers by strangulation. The existing descendants of the Thugs at Jubbulpore appear to be mainly Kanjars and Berias. For such a life it is clear that the profession of the Muhammadan religion would be of much a.s.sistance in maintaining the disguise; for it set a man free from many caste obligations and ties and also from a host of irksome restrictions as to eating and drinking with others. We may therefore conjecture, though without certain knowledge, that many of the Thugs may originally have become Muhammadans for convenience; and this is supported by the well-known fact that the deity of all of them was the Hindu G.o.ddess Kali. Many bodies of Thugs were also recruited from other Hindu castes, of whom the Lodhas or Lodhis were perhaps the most numerous; others of the fraternity were Rajputs, Brahmans, Tantis or weavers, Goalas or cowherds, Multanis or Muhammadan Banjaras, as well as the Sansias and Kanjars or criminal vagrants and gipsies. These seem to have observed their caste rules and to have intermarried among themselves; sometimes they obtained wives from other families who had no connection with Thuggee and kept their wives in ignorance of their nefarious trade; occasionally a girl would be spared from a murdered party and married to a son of one of the Thugs; while boys were more frequently saved and brought up to the business. The Thugs said [681]

that the fidelity of their wives was proverbial and they were not less loving and dutiful than those of other men, while several instances are recorded of the strong affection borne by fathers to their children.

4. Methods of

As is well known the method of the Thugs was to attach themselves to travellers, either single men or small parties, and at a convenient opportunity to strangle them, bury the bodies and make off with the property found on them. The gangs of Thugs usually contained from ten to fifty men and were sometimes much larger; on one occasion as many as three hundred and sixty Thugs accomplished the murder of a party of forty persons in Bilaspur. [682] They pretended to be traders, soldiers or cultivators and usually went without weapons in order to disarm suspicion; and this practice also furnished them with an excuse for seeking for permission to accompany parties travelling with arms. There was nothing to excite alarm or suspicion in the appearance of these murderers; but on the contrary they are described as being mild and benevolent of aspect, and peculiarly courteous, gentle and obliging. In their palmy days the leader of the gang often travelled on horseback with a tent and pa.s.sed for a person of consequence or a wealthy merchant. They were accustomed to get into conversation with travellers by doing them some service or asking permission to unite their parties as a measure of precaution. They would then journey on together, and strive to win the confidence of their victims by a demeanour of warm friends.h.i.+p and feigned interest in their affairs. Sometimes days would elapse before a favourable opportunity occurred for the murder; an instance is mentioned of a gang having accompanied a family of eleven persons for twenty days during which they had traversed upwards of 200 miles and then murdered the whole of them; and another gang accomplished 160 miles in twelve days in company with a party of sixty men, women and children, before they found a propitious occasion. [683] Their favourite time for the murder was in the evening when the whole party would be seated in the open, the Thugs mingled with their victims, talking, smoking and singing. If their numbers were sufficient three Thugs would be allotted to every victim, so that on the signal being given two of them could lay hold of his hands and feet, while the Bhurtot or strangler pa.s.sed the _rumal_ over his head and tightened it round his neck, forcing the victim backwards and not relaxing his hold till life was extinct. The _rumal_ or 'handkerchief,' always employed for throttling victims, was really a loin-cloth or turban, in which a loop was made with a slip-knot. The Thugs called it their _sikka_ or 'ensign,' but it was not held sacred like the pickaxe. When the leader of the gang cleared his throat violently it was a sign to prepare for action, and he afterwards gave the _jhirni_ or signal for the murder, by saying either '_Tamakhu kha lo_,' 'Begin chewing tobacco'; '_Bhanja ko pan do_,' 'Give betel to my nephew'; or '_Ayi ho to ghiri chalo_,' 'If you are come, pray descend.' Their adroitness was such that their victims seldom or never escaped nor even had a chance of making a fight for their lives. But if several persons were to be killed some men were detached to surround the camp and cut down any one who tried to escape. The Thugs do not therefore appear to have had any religious objection to the shedding of blood, but they preferred murder by strangling as being safer. After the murder the bodies were at once buried, being first cut about to prevent them from swelling on decomposition, as this might raise the surface of the earth over the grave and so attract attention. If the ground was too hard they were thrown into a ravine or down one of the shallow irrigation wells which abound in north India; and it was stated that the discovery of a body in one of these wells was so common an occurrence that the cultivators took no notice of it. If there were people in the vicinity so that it was dangerous to dig the graves in the open air, the Thugs did not scruple to inter the bodies of victims inside their own tents and to eat their food sitting on the soil above. For the attack of a horseman three men were always detailed, if practicable, so that one could seize the bridle and the other two pull him out of the saddle and strangle him; but if, as happened occasionally, a single Thug managed to kill a man on horseback, he obtained a great reputation, which even descended to his children. On the other hand, if a strangler was unlucky or clumsy, so that the cloth fell on the victim's head or face, or he got blood on his clothes or other suspicious signs, and these accidents recurred, he was known as Bisul, and was excluded from the office of strangler on account of presumed unfitness for the duty. When it was necessary for some reason to murder a party on the march, some _belhas_ or scouts were sent on ahead to choose a _beil_ or suitable place for the business, and see that no one was coming in the opposite direction; and when the leader said, 'Wash the cup,' it was a signal for the scouts to go forward for this purpose. If a traveller had a dog with him the dog was also killed, lest he might stay beside his master's grave and call attention to it. Another device in case of difficulty was for one of the Thugs to feign sickness. The Garru or man who did this fell down on a sudden and pretended to be taken violently ill. Some of his friends raised and supported him, while others brought water and felt his pulse; and at last one of them pretended that a charm would restore him. All were then requested to sit down, the pot of water being in the centre; all were desired to take off their belts, if they had any, and uncover their necks, and lastly to look up and see if they could count a certain number of stars. While they were thus occupied intently gazing at the sky to carry out the charm for the recovery of the sick man, the cloths were pa.s.sed round their necks and they were strangled.

5. Account of certain murders

The secrecy and adroitness with which the Thugs conducted their murders are well ill.u.s.trated by the narrative of the of a native official or pleader at Lakhnadon in Seoni as given by one of the gang: [684] "We fell in with the Muns.h.i.+ and his family at Chhapara between Nagpur and Jubbulpore; and they came on with us to Lakhnadon, where we found that some companies of a native regiment under European officers were expected the next morning. It was determined to put them all to death that evening as the Muns.h.i.+ seemed likely to join the soldiers. The encampment was near the village and the Muns.h.i.+'s tent was pitched close to us. In the afternoon some of the officers'

tents came on in advance and were pitched on the other side, leaving us between them and the village. The _khalasis_ were all busily occupied in pitching them. Nur Khan and his son Sadi Khan and a few others went as soon as it became dark to the Muns.h.i.+'s tent, and began to play and sing upon a _sitar_ as they had been accustomed to do. During this time some of them took up the Muns.h.i.+'s sword on pretence of wis.h.i.+ng to look at it. His wife and children were inside listening to the music. The _jhirni_ or signal was given, but at this moment the Muns.h.i.+ saw his danger, called out murder, and attempted to rush through, but was seized and strangled. His wife hearing him ran out with the infant in her arms, but was seized by Ghabbu Khan, who strangled her and took the infant. The other daughter was strangled in the tent. The _saises_ (grooms) were at the time cleaning their horses, and one of them seeing his danger ran under the belly of his horse and called murder; but he was soon seized and strangled as well as all the rest. In order to prevent the party pitching the officers'

tents from hearing the disturbance, as soon as the signal was given those of the gang who were idle began to play and sing as loud as they could; and two vicious horses were let loose, and many ran after them calling out as loud as they could; so that the calls of the Muns.h.i.+ and his party were drowned." They thought at first of keeping the infant, but decided that it was too risky, and threw it alive into the grave in which the other bodies had been placed. It is surprising to realise that in the above case about half a dozen people, awake and conscious, were killed forcibly in broad daylight within a few paces of a number of men occupied in pitching tents, without their noticing anything of the matter; and this may certainly be characterised as an instance of murder as a fine art to show the absolute callousness of the Thugs towards their victims and the complete absence of any feelings of compa.s.sion, the story of the following murder by the same gang may be recorded. [685] The Thugs were travelling from Nagpur toward Jubbulpore with a party consisting of Newal Singh, a Jemadar (petty officer) in the Nizam's army, his brother, his two daughters, one thirteen and the other eleven years old, his son about seven years old, two young men who were to marry the daughters, and four servants. At Dhurna the house in which the Thugs lodged took fire, and the greater number of them were seized by the police, but were released at the urgent request of Newal Singh and his two daughters, who had taken a great fancy to Khimoli, the leader of the gang, and some of the others. Newal Singh was related to a native officer of the British detachment at Seoni and obtained his a.s.sistance for the release of the Thugs. At this time the gang had with them two bags of silk, the property of three carriers whom they had murdered in the great temple of Kamptee, and if they had been searched by the police these must have been discovered. On reaching Jubbulpore the Thugs found a lodging in the town with Newal Singh and his family. But the merchants who were expecting the silk from Nagpur and found that it had not arrived, induced the Kotwal to search the lodging of the Thugs. Hearing of the approach of the police, the leader Khimoli again availed himself of the attachment of Newal Singh and his daughters, and the girls were made to sit each upon one of the two bags of silk while the police searched the place. Nothing was found and the party again set out; and five days afterwards Newal Singh and his whole family were murdered at Biseni by the Thugs whom they had twice preserved from arrest.

6. Special incidents (continued)

These murderers looked on all travellers as their legitimate prey, as sportsmen regard game. On one occasion the noted Thug, Feringia, [686] with his gang were cooking their dinners under some trees on the road when five travellers came by, but could not be persuaded to stop and partake of the meal, saying they wished to sleep at a place called Hirora that night, and had yet eight miles to go. The Thugs afterwards followed, but found no traces of the travellers at Hirora. Feringia therefore concluded that they must have fallen into the hands of another gang, and suddenly recollected having pa.s.sed an encampment of Banjaras (pack-carriers) not far from the town. On the following morning he accordingly went back with a few of his comrades, and at once recognised a horse and pony which he had observed in the possession of the travellers. So he asked the Banjaras, "What have you done with the five travellers, my good friends? You have taken from us our _banij_ (merchandise)." They apologised for what they had done, pleading ignorance of the lien of the other Thugs, and offered to share the booty; but Feringia declined, as none of his party had been present at the _loading._ They were accustomed to distinguish their most important exploits by the number of persons who were killed. Thus one murder in the Jubbulpore District was known as the 'Sathrup,' or 'Sixty soul affair,' and another in Bilaspur as the 'Chalisrup,' or 'Murder of forty.' At this time (1807) the road between northern and southern India through the Nerbudda valley had been rendered so unsafe by the incursions of the Pindaris that travellers preferred to go through Chhattisgarh and Sambalpur to the Ganges. This route, pa.s.sing for long distances through dense forest, offered great advantages to the Thugs, and was soon infested by them. In 1806, owing to the success [687] of previous expeditions, it was determined that all the Thugs of northern India should work on this road; accordingly after the Dasahra festival six hundred of them, under forty Jemadars or leaders of note, set out from their homes, and having wors.h.i.+pped in the temple of Devi at Bindhyachal, met at Ratanpur in Bilaspur. The gangs split up, and after several murders sixty of them came to Lanji in Balaghat, and here in two days' time fell in with a party of thirty-one men, seven women and two girls on their way to the Ganges. The Jemadars soon became intimate with the men of the party, pretended to be going to the same part of India and won their confidence; and next day they all set out and in four days reached Ratanpur, where they met 160 Thugs returning from the murder of a wealthy widow and her escort. Shortly afterwards another 200 men who had heard of the travellers near Nagpur also came up, but all the different bodies pretended to be strangers to each other. They detached sixty men to return to Nagpur, leaving 360 to deal with the forty travellers. From Ratanpur they all journeyed to Chura (Chhuri?), and here scouts were sent on to select a proper place for the murder. This was chosen in a long stretch of forest, and two men were despatched to the village of Sutranja, farther on the road, to see that no one was coming in the opposite direction, while another picket remained behind to prevent interruption from the rear. By the time they reached the appointed place, the Bhurtots (stranglers) and Shamsias (holders) had all on some pretext or other got close to the side of the persons whom they were appointed to kill; and on reaching the spot the signal was given in several places at the same time; and thirty-eight out of forty were immediately seized and strangled. One of the girls was a very handsome young woman, and Pancham, a Jemadar, wished to preserve her as a wife for his son. But when she saw her father and mother strangled she screamed and beat her head against the ground and tried to kill herself. Pancham tried in vain to quiet her, and promised to take great care of her and marry her to his own son, who would be a great chief; but all to no effect. She continued to scream, and at last Pancham put the _rumal_ (handkerchief) round her neck and strangled her. One little girl of three years old was preserved by another Jemadar and married to his son, and when she grew up often heard the story of the affair narrated. The bodies were buried in a ravine and the booty amounted to Rs. 17,000. The Thugs then decided to return home, and arrived without mishap, except that the Jemadar, Pancham, died on the way.

7. Disguises of the Thugs

They were not particular, however, to ascertain that their victims carried valuable property before disposing of them. Eight annas (8d.), one of them said, [688] was sufficient remuneration for murdering a man. On another occasion two river Thugs killed two old men and obtained only a rupee's worth of coppers, two bra.s.s vessels and their body-cloths. But as a rule the gains were much larger. It sometimes happened that the Thugs themselves were robbed at night by ordinary thieves, though they usually set a watch. On one occasion a band of more than a hundred Thugs fell in with a party of twenty-seven dacoits who had with them stolen property of Rs. 13,000 in cash, with gold ornaments, gems and shawls. The Thugs asked to be allowed to travel under their protection, and the dacoits carelessly a.s.senting were shortly afterwards all murdered. [689] As already stated, the Thugs were accustomed to live in towns or villages and many of them ostensibly followed respectable callings. The following instance of this is given by Sir W. Sleeman: [690] "The first party of Thug approvers whom I sent into the Deccan to aid Captain Reynolds recognised in the person of one of the most respectable linen-drapers of the cantonment of Hingoli, Hari Singh, the adopted son of Jawahir Sukul, Subahdar of Thugs, who had been executed twenty years before. On hearing that the Hari Singh of the list sent to him of noted Thugs at large in the Deccan was the Hari Singh of the Sadar Bazar, Captain Reynolds was quite astounded; so correct had he been in his deportment and all his dealings that he had won the esteem of all the gentlemen of the station, who used to a.s.sist him in procuring pa.s.sports for his goods on their way from Bombay; and yet he had, as he has since himself shown, been carrying on his trade of murder up to the very day of his arrest with gangs of Hindustan and the Deccan on all the roads around and close to the cantonments of Hingoli; and leading out his band of while he pretended to be on his way to Bombay for a supply of fresh linen and broad-cloth." Another case is quoted by Mr. Oman from Taylor's _Thirty-eight Years in India_. [691]

"Dr. Cheek had a child's bearer who had charge of his children. The man was a special favourite, remarkable for his kind and tender ways with his little charges, gentle in manner and unexceptionable in all his conduct. Every year he obtained leave from his master and mistress, as he said, for the filial purpose of visiting his aged mother for one month; and returning after the expiry of that time, with the utmost punctuality, resumed with the accustomed affection and tenderness the charge of his little darlings. This mild and exemplary being was the missing Thug; kind, gentle, conscientious and regular at his post for eleven months in the year he devoted the twelfth to strangulation."

8. Secrecy of their operations

Again, as regards the secrecy with which murders were perpetrated and all traces of them hidden, Sir W. Sleeman writes: [692] "While I was in civil charge of the District of Narsinghpur, in the valley of the Nerbudda, in the years 1822-1824, no ordinary robbery or theft could be committed without my becoming aware of it, nor was there a robber or thief of the ordinary kind in the District with whose character I had not become acquainted in the discharge of my duties as magistrate; and if any man had then told me that a gang of by profession resided in the village of Kandeli, [693] not four hundred yards from my court, and that the extensive groves of the village of Mundesur, only one stage from me on the road to Saugor and Bhopal, were one of the greatest _beles_ or places of murder in all India, and that large gangs from Hindustan and the Deccan used to _rendezvous_ in these groves, remain in them for many days every year, and carry on their dreadful trade along all the lines of road that pa.s.s by and branch off from them, with the knowledge and connivance of the two landholders by whose ancestors these groves had been planted, I should have thought him a fool or a madman; and yet nothing could have been more true. The bodies of a hundred travellers lie buried in and around the groves of Mundesur; and a gang of lived in and about the village of Kandeli while I was magistrate of the District, and extended their depredations to the cities of Poona and Hyderabad."

9. Support of landholders and villagers

The system of Thuggee reached its zenith during the anarchic period of the decline of the Mughal Empire, when only the strongest and most influential could obtain any a.s.sistance from the State in recovering property or exacting reparation for the deaths of murdered friends and relatives. Nevertheless, the Thugs could hardly have escaped considerable loss even from private vengeance had they been compelled to rely on themselves for protection. But this was not the case, for, like the Badhaks and other robbers, they enjoyed the countenance and support of landholders and ruling chiefs in return for presenting them with the choicest of their booty and taking holdings of land at very high rents. Sir W. Sleeman wrote [694] that, "The zamindars and landholders of every description have everywhere been found ready to receive these people under their protection from the desire to share in the fruits of their expeditions, and without the slightest feeling of religious or moral responsibility for the murders which they know must be perpetrated to secure these fruits. All that they require from them is a promise that they will not commit murders within their estates and thereby involve them in trouble." Sometimes the police could also be conciliated by bribes, and on one occasion when a body of Thugs who had killed twenty-five persons were being pursued by the Thakur of Powai [695] they retired upon the village of Tigura, and even the villagers came out to their support and defended them against his attack. Another officer wrote: [696] "To conclude, there seems no doubt but that this horrid crime has been fostered by all in the community--the landholders, the native officers of our courts, the police and village authorities--all, I think, have been more or less guilty; my meaning is not, of course, that every member of these, but that individuals varying in number in each cla.s.s were concerned. The subordinate police officials have in many cases been _practising Thugs_, and the _chaukidars_ or village watchmen frequently so."

10. Murder of sepoys

A favourite cla.s.s of victims were sepoys proceeding to their homes on furlough and carrying their small savings; such men would not be quickly missed, as their relatives would think they had not started, and the regimental authorities would ascribe their failure to return to desertion. So many of these disappeared that a special Army Order was issued warning them not to travel alone, and arranging for the transmission of their money through the Government treasuries. [697]

In this order it is stated that the Thugs were accustomed first to stupefy their victim by surrept.i.tiously administering the common narcotic _dhatura_, still a familiar method of highway robbery.

The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India Volume IV Part 49

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