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What Is a Thuggee?

The Thuggee were criminal organizations that existed in India.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2014
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The Thuggee were criminal organizations that existed in India during the 19th century, though it is possible they existed for hundreds of years before that. Individual groups of Thugs would be organized under a single leader and work in smaller groups to infiltrate groups of travelers crossing through India. Once they had successfully infiltrated the group, they would wait until an appropriate opportunity presented itself, and then kill the travelers and steal their belongings. The Thuggee were noted for killing tens of thousands, if not millions, of travelers during their existence, though they did not likely survive far into the 20th century.

Typically referred to as the Thuggee cult, these groups were often led by individual leaders, and though different groups may not have interacted, they were all part of a similar pattern of criminal behavior. The term “cult” may be somewhat misleading with reference to these Thugs, as there is little evidence to clearly indicate religious purposes for their behavior. One possible exception, however, were groups that also worshiped the Hindu goddess Kali. These Thuggee cults may have practiced a ritual component to their crimes as well, though the secretive nature of such groups made definitive proof of these rituals difficult to find.

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The name “Thuggee” comes from the Hindi word for “thief” and may stem from the Sanskrit word for “deceiver” or “scoundrel.” It is the source for the common English word “thug,” which was borrowed from Hindi by the British occupants of India during the 19th century. While the term “thug” in English is often used synonymously with thief, robber, or criminal, it has a very specific meaning when used in terms of the Indian Thuggee cults. These cults primarily preyed on travelers and travel in large groups for safety and assistance in case of accident.

Small groups of Thugs from a single Thuggee group would infiltrate a large caravan of travelers as they passed through India. Once they were within the group, they would wait until the caravan had stopped, usually during the night, then isolate the travelers and kill them. This was usually done through strangulation, often using scarves or belts; Thugs preferred to leave no survivors, both to conceal their identities and to increase time before anyone would be searching for the travelers. Once the travelers were dead, the Thugs would dispose of their bodies and steal any goods the travelers had with them. British soldiers began to pursue Thuggee cults in the 19th century, and between these efforts and the proliferation of railway travel through India, these groups disappeared in the 20th century.

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