THUGS. That the Sanskrit root sthag (Pali, thak), to cover, to conceal, was mainly applied to fraudulent concealment, appears from the noun sthaga, a cheat, which has retained this signification in the modern vernaculars, in all of which it has assumed the form thag (commonly written thug), with a specific meaning. The Thugs were a well-organized confederacy of professional assassins, who in gangs of whom 10 to 200 travelled in various guises through India, wormed themselves into the confidence of wayfarers of the wealthier class, and, when a favourable opportunity occurred, strangled them by throwing a handkerchief or noose round their necks, and then plundered and buried them. All this was done according to certain ancient and rigidly prescribed forms and after the performance of special religious rites, in which the consecration of the pickaxe and the sacrifice of sugar formed a prominent part. From their using the noose as an instrument of murder they were also frequently called Phansigars, or " noose-operators." Though they themselves trace their origin to seven Mahommedan tribes, Hindus appear to have been associated with them at an early period; at any rate, their religious creed and practices as stanch worshippers of Kali (Devi, Durga), the Hindu goddess of destruction, had certainly no flavour of Islam in them. Assassination for gain was with them a religious duty, and was considered a holy and honourable profession. They had, in fact, no idea of doing wrong, and their moral feelings did not come into play. The will of the goddess by whose command and in whose honour they followed their calling was revealed to them through a very complicated system of omens. In obedience to these they often travelled hundreds of miles in company with, or in the wake of, their intended victims before a safe opportunity presented itself for executing their design; and, when the deed was done, rites were performed in honour of that tutelary deity, and a goodly portion of the spoil was set apart for her. The fraternity possessed also a jargon of their own (Ramasi), as well as certain signs by which its members recognized each other in the remotest parts of India. Even those who from age or infirmities could no longer take an active part in the operations continued to aid the cause as watchers, spies, or dressers of food. It was owing to their thorough organization, the secrecy and security with which they went to work, but chiefly to the religious garb in which they shrouded their murders, that they could, unmolested by Hindu or Mahommedan rulers, recognized as a regular profession and paying taxes as such, continue for centuries to practise their craft. Both the fractions into which they were divided by the Nerbudda river laid claim to antiquity: while the northern, however, did not trace their origin further back than the period of the early Mahommedan kings of Delhi, the southern fraction not only claimed an earlier and purer descent, but adhered also with greater strictness to the rules of their profession.
The earliest authenticated mention of the Thugs is found in the following passage of Ziau-d din Barni's History of Firoz Shah (written about 1356): "In the reign of that sultan," that is, 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 " (Sir H. M. Elliot's History of India, iii. 141). The first European travellers who speak of them without mentioning their name are Thevenot (1665) and Fryer (1673). Though instances of Thagi (Thuggee) had been known to the English rulers in India for many years, and sporadic efforts had been made by them towards the extinction of the gangs, it was not till Lord W. Bentinck (1828-1835) took vigorous steps in this matter that the system was gradually unmasked, and finally all but stamped out. His chief agent, Captain (afterwards Sir William) Sleeman, with several competent assistants, and the co-operation of a number of native states, succeeded in completely grappling with the evil, so that up to October 1833 no fewer than 1562 Thugs had been committed, of which number 382 were hanged and 986 transported or imprisoned for life. According to the Thuggee and Dacoily Report for 1871), the number of registered Punjabi and Hindustani Thugs then still amounted to 344; but all of these had already been registered as such before 1852, and the whole fraternity may now be considered as extinct. The Thuggee and Dacoity department continued to exist until 1904, though its operations had long been confined to the suppression of organized robbery in native states. Its place is now taken by the Central Criminal Intelligence department.
Full particulars concerning the system of Thagi are given by Dr Sherwood, " On the Murderers called Phansigars," and J. Shakespear, " Observations regarding Bradheks and Thegs " (both treatises in vol. xiii. (1820), of the Asiatic Researches); W. N. Sleeman, Ramaseeana, or a Vocabulary of the Language used by the Thugs, with an Introduction and Appendix (Calcutta, 1836) ; the Edinburgh Review for January 1837 ; E. Thornton, Illustrations of the History and Practices of the Thugs (London, 1837) ; Meadows Taylor, Confessions of a Thug (London, 1839; new ed. 1879); Major Sleeman, Report on the Depredations committed by the Thug Gangs (Calcutta, 1840); J. Hutton, Popular Account of the Thugs and Dacoits (London, 1857)- (R- R.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)