Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Thuggee, and the part taken in its suppression by General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
NOTE BY CAPTAIN J. L. SLEEMAN, ROYAL SUSSEX REGIMENT
The religion of murder known as 'Thuggee' was established in India some centuries before the British Government first became aware of its existence, It is remarkable that, after an intercourse with India of nearly two centuries, and the exercise of sovereignty over a large part of the country for no inconsiderable period, the English should have been so ignorant of the existence and habits of a body so dangerous to the public peace.
The name 'Thug' signifies a 'Deceiver', and it will be generally admitted that this term was well earned. There is reason to believe that between 1799 and 1808 the practice of 'Thuggee' (Thagī) reached its height and that thousands of persons were annually destroyed by its disciples.
It is interesting to note the legendary origin of this strange and horrible religion:
In remote ages a demon infested the earth and devoured mankind as soon as created. The world was thus left unpeopled, until the goddess of the Thugs (Dēvī or Kālī) came to the rescue. She attacked the demon, and cut him down; but from every drop of his blood another demon arose; and though the goddess continued to cut down these rising demons, fresh broods of demons sprang from their blood, as from that of their progenitors; and the diabolical race consequently multiplied with fearful rapidity.
At length, fatigued and disheartened, the goddess found it necessary to change her tactics. Accordingly, relinquishing all personal efforts for their suppression, she formed two men from perspiration brushed from her arms. To each of these men she gave a handkerchief, and with these the two assistants of the goddess were commanded to put all the demons to death without shedding a drop of blood.
Her commands were immediately obeyed; and the demons were all strangled. Having strangled all the demons, the two men offered to return the handkerchiefs; but the goddess desired that they should retain them, not merely as memorials of their heroism, but as the implements of a lucrative trade in which their descendants were to labour and thrive. They were in fact commanded to strangle men as they had strangled demons.
Several generations passed before Thuggee became practised as a profession—probably for the same reason that a sportsman allows game to accumulate—but in due time it was abundantly exercised. Thus, according to the creed of the Thug, did their order arise, and thus originated their mode of operation.
The profession of a Thug, like almost everything in India, became hereditary, the fraternity, however, receiving occasional reinforcements from strangers, but these were admitted with great caution, and seldom after they had attained mature age. The Thugs were usually men seemingly occupied in most respectable and often in most responsible positions.
Annually these outwardly respectable citizens and tradesmen would take the road, and sacrifice a multitude of victims for the sake of their religion and pecuniary gain. The Thug bands would assemble at fixed places of rendezvous, and before commencing their expeditions much strange ceremony had to be gone through. A sacred pickaxe was the emblem of their faith: its fashioning was wrought with quaint rites and its custody was a matter of great moment.
Its point was supposed to indicate the line of route propitious to the disciples of the goddess, and it was credited with other powers equally marvellous. The brute creation afforded a vast fund of instruction upon every proceeding. The ass, jackal, wolf, deer, hare, dog, cat, owl, kite, crow, partridge, jay, and lizard, all served to furnish good or bad omens to a Thug on the war-path.
For the first week of the expedition fasting and general discomfort were insisted on, unless the first murder took place within that period. Women were never murdered unless their slaughter was unavoidable (i.e. when they were thought to suspect the cause of the disappearance of their men-folk). Children of the murdered were often adopted by the Thugs, and the boys were initiated in due course in the horrid rites of Thuggee.
Men skilled in the practice of digging and concealing graves were always attached to each Thug gang. These were able to prepare graves in anticipation of a murder, and to effectually conceal all trace of the crime after they were occupied. To assist the grave-diggers in this duty all roads used by Thugs had selected places upon them at which murders were always carried out if possible. The Thugs would speak of such places with the same affection and enthusiasm as other men would of the most delightful scenes of their early life.
It was these people, versed in deceit and surrounded by a thousand obstacles to conviction, that General Sir W. H. Sleeman so nobly set out to exterminate. Within seven years of his first commencing the suppression of Thuggee it had practically ceased to exist as a religion; and he had the privilege of seeing it entirely suppressed as such before giving up this work for the Residentship at Lucknow.
He was described when taking over the latter appointment as follows: 'He had served in India nearly forty years. His work had been of the best. He had done more than any one to suppress 'Thuggee' finally, and had a knowledge of the Indian character and language possessed by very few. He was personally popular with all classes of Indians, and respected, feared, and trusted by all.'