An Indian road story- These thugs killed more than 3 million Indians

From 1350 until the end of the 19th century, thugs killed more than 3 million Indians in their quest for loot. This Indian road story tells you about the secret and murderous cult of the thugs of Hindustan. 

Indian road story
Thugs strangling a traveler. From the collections of James Paton, Assistant to the British Resident at Lucknow

This Indian road story is not about some exotic travel destinations; it is about the murderous cult of thugs who roamed the countryside till as late as the mid-nineteenth century!

Though I had read about the thugs and ‘thuggery’ in my school, this topic did not catch my attention yet again until a few days back.

I was searching for a suitable topic for my blog and all of a sudden, the story of the thugs appeared before me. And, hence, this topic.

The word ‘thug’ means ‘swindler’, ‘thief’ or ‘cheat’. Today, ‘thuggery’ is a non-violent means of cheating somebody. But more than 150 years back, thugs could kill for money. Indian roads were dangerous for travelers traveling alone and therefore they banded together for safety.

But did safety lie in numbers? No. In fact, thugs specialized in isolating their targets from the groups and later killing the unsuspecting victims.

The Thugs largely lived in the area between Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. This terrain was sparsely inhabited and had dense forests and that is why these people found shelter there.

These people have  fascinated the entire western world no end. Even Mark Twain has written about them in one of his books, Following The equator.

He writes:

“The joy of killing! The joy of seeing killing done — these are the traits of the human race at large. We White people are merely modified Thugs; Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization; Thugs who not long ago enjoyed the slaughter of the Roman arena …”

An Indian Road Story- History of the Thugs

Indian Thugs
This is how the thugs killed their victims; by distracting their attention. Creds- British Library

Thugee was rampant even more than 675 years ago. Zia-ud-din Barani, the biographer of Feroze Shah records an interesting incident in his book, History of Feroz Shah

In the reign of that sultan [about 1290], some Thugs were taken in Delhi, and a man belonging to that fraternity was the means of about a thousand being captured. But not one of these did the sultan have killed. He gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the lower country, to the neighbourhood of Lakhnauti, where they were to be set free. The Thugs would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti and would not trouble the neighbourhood of Delhi any more.

This is the first time that the word’ thug’ finds its way into historical texts and literature. Another time that we hear about thugs is in this couplet of Saint-Poet Surdas;

“As a thag lures a pilgrim with laddus sweet with wine

Makes him drunk and trusting takes his money and his life;

Just so, Honeybee Hari takes our love by deceit”

Surdas lived in the 15th and 16th centuries, so we can conclude that thugs were very active even in that era.

From the 14th century till the beginning of the 19th century, we do not hear much about these people who concealed themselves and made the lives of the travelers miserable.

Did the thugs operate before the 13th century? We do not have any definitive answer though Hieun T’Sang says that he nearly got killed by highway robbers who followed a religious cult.

Thugee probably flourished during the reign of Aurangzeb as well. An English traveler, John Fryer has described the execution of a thug on the orders of the Mughal Emperor in 1672.

This Indian road story isn’t over yet. Read on to discover even more secrets of this cult.

Discovery of Thugs

However, their misdemeanors started attracting the new masters of India, the British, in the early  19th century and that is when the latter decided to exterminate these ‘rascals’.

For a good number of years, the British government did not know that these robbers were behind the loot of government treasury on highways. A chance discovery of a mass grave revealed to the British that these loots were being conducted by an organized gang of robbers. And that was when they decided to crack down on these highway criminals.

It was the British Governor General, William Bentinck who removed thuggery from Indian roads with the able assistance of his officer, William Sleeman. By the end of the nineteenth century, thuggery or thuggee had become extinct.

Hidden from their families

The thugs were well entrenched within the Indian community. If you thought that these people lived in the jungles or on the hills, then you are mistaken. Thugs were as adaptable to their surroundings as the common pigeon. They lived among the average villagers and the townsfolk. Nobody could recognize them because most of these people were engaged in their regular professions.

You would be even surprised to know that these people concealed their ‘profession’ from their womenfolk. Every thug was sworn to secrecy and not everyone could join this secret cult.

For thugs, thuggery was a kind of side-business. Also, this profession was a way of keeping their goddess, Kali, happy.

Origin of ‘Thug’

This word is Hindi in origin and foreign readers will be surprised at this fact. Actually, the word, ‘thug’ is derived from a Sanskrit word, ‘ sthagati’, meaning ‘to conceal’. ‘Thug’ would enter the English dictionary in the nineteenth century.

Also called Phansigars, these violent men specialized in killing their victims by strangling them with ‘rumals’ or handkerchiefs. The word, ‘phansi’ means ‘to strangle’ and ‘gar’ means ‘being skilled in’.

Death toll

There are many versions about how many people were killed by the thugs on the Indian roads. The least common figure available to us is that of a million. British officials, however, say that more than 3 million unsuspecting Indian travelers were killed by these thieves.

But why kill?

Yes, why did these thieves kill their victims?

The thugs thought that killing their victims was one way of keeping Goddess Kali happy. Kali likes blood of her victims and for the thugs, their victims had to pay with their lives for the happiness of Kali. Bizarre, but true.

From a practical standpoint, killing the victims was necessary so that the killers remained anonymous.

Modus Operandi

Thug Behram, who killed more than 1,000 people. Creds- Wiki


Thugs did not ambush their victims.


Rather they infiltrated the groups of unsuspecting travelers and later win their trust. At an opportune moment, the thugs would take their victim to a remote spot, like a river bank, and then strangle him. Murder would be bloodless and there would be no spots, stains etc to let the thugs get discovered.

In most cases, thugs would remove the eyes of their victims after murder so that they were never recognized by others.

But, did the thugs kill all their victims? No. Exceptions were made to lepers, English men and women, women in general, children, sadhus and the infirm.

The most common way to strangulate the victims was by using the handkerchief or ‘rumal’. When the thugs were ready to execute their victims, they used to utter these words,’Bring the tobacco’. This was a signal to the other thieves that the moment to execute the victim had come.

Suppression of Thuggery

The British had to think like a thug in order to curb this menace. They were also successful in this regard after the capture of a thief, Syed Amir Ali.

This thug, after his capture, led the soldiers to a mass grave which contained dead bodies of more than a thousand victims. All these people had been killed by the thugs over several years.

Based on the confessions of Ali, the Britishers devised a strategy of ambushing thugs. The idea was to send plainclothes men to those areas of British India which had thugs in large numbers. These spies followed the unsuspecting thugs to their hideouts and later overpowered them. By the end of the nineteenth century, thousands of thugs had either been imprisoned, executed or externed from British India. It was a painstaking affair but yes, it did fetch results.

Based on the confessions of the thug, Amir Ali, a novel,’ Confessions of a Thug‘ was later published sometime in 1839.It makes interesting reading and forms the plot of a movie, Thugs of Hindoostan, which stars Amitabh Bachchan.

This book was so much popular among the Britons that even Queen Victoria bought a copy to read it.

Closer home, thugs have been covered in many recent films like Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom. British Indian filmmaker, Ismail Merchant, has also made a movie, Deceivers, around the cult of thuggery.

You may also read;

  1. Tracing India’s Thugs
  1. Mark Twain- Following the Equator

  2. Haunted places in Shimla 

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