Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India
By Kim Wagner
Published by Springer - 2007
Based largely on new material, this book examines thuggee as a type of banditry, emerging in a specific socio-economic and geographic context. The British usually described the thugs as fanatic assassins and Kali-worshippers, yet Wagner argues that the history of thuggee need no longer be limited to the study of its representation.
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The lore of Thuggee and how the British ended its reign
The lore of the thuggee can be found in abundance in writing from ninth century Bhasarvajna to James Forbes’ Oriental Memoirs (1785). In the seventh century, during Hiuen Tsang’s famous journey to India, he was set upon by bandits on the Ganges and narrowly escaped being sacrificed to their goddess. Similarly, in 1290, Sultan of Delhi Jalal Uddin Firz Khilji expelled 1000 thags from Delhi. The great poet Kabir (1398-1448) often made use of the thag as a metaphor of the divine deceit of God. They are also referred to in the Janamsakhi-texts describing the life of Guru Nanak. (The name was variously spelt as ‘thag’ and ‘thug’ which has been retained in present day English). While Frenchman Jean de Thevenot mentioned them as “the cunningest Robbers in the World”, Englishman John Fryer described an execution of a phansigar (strangler) on the basis of a farman by the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb in 1672.
According to the conventional account of thuggee, the thugs were a fraternity of ritual stranglers who preyed upon travellers along the highways of 19th century India. Their unsuspecting victims were first deceived into joining the thugs and later at some secluded spot, strangled, plundered and buried. In a sense, a clean criminal act. Kim A. Wagner’s ‘Thuggee – Banditry and the British in early nineteenth Century India’ has written to re-inscribe the thuggee in its historical context and not merely consider it as colonial phantasmagoria. In this attempt Wagner (affectionately called by the present inhabitants of Sindouse (Sandaus in U.P.) as ‘Kim Singh’) has chronicled the thuggee phenomenon — their religious, ethnic and social background, kinship ties, customs and language as well the interaction and cooperation between different gangs. The thuggee was first encountered by the British during a period where the colonial state was still consolidating its rule and authority. With policing and law and order high on the agenda, the thuggee were seen as a blemish on the rule.
The British ‘discovery’ of Phansigars and thugs happened almost simultaneously, in 1807 and 1809 respectively. Dr. Sherwood of Madras Presidency is the first to mention a religious element in the phenomenon. According to him, they were highly superstitious and though some were Muslims, their tutelary deity was the Hindu goddess ‘cali or Mariatta’.
Wagner’s argues that thuggee did not constitute a caste-like identity, and was a livelihood resorted to by all strata of society in certain areas.