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Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult by Mike Dash

The sacred slaughterers

The Thugs fascinated Victorian England, so much so that in 1839 Queen Victoria demanded to see the proofs of Confession of a Thug by Colonel Philip Meadows Taylor, a colonial officer in Hyderabad. Thuggee tales of "oriental chicanery" impressed writers like Mark Twain and John Masters; the latter's novel about Thuggee, The Deceivers, was made into a film by Ismail Merchant. The cult features in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Mike Dash gives a competent historical account of Thug beliefs and practice, through to their extermination by Sleeman and his men, using archival material from both Britain and India.

India at the turn of the 19th century was a vast amalgam of tribes, fiefdoms, faiths, customs and practices. With law and order deferential to local religious dictate instead of a general code, obscure cults with horrible rituals could thrive in remote places. Recurring famine, crop diseases and finally the heavy tax burden imposed by the East India Company drove many to poverty and crime. The Thugs who befriended and killed their unsuspecting victims by strangulation, coolly burying corpses in pre-dug graves to avoid detection, were sometimes patronised by local gentry for a share of the loot.

Thuggery was a hereditary mode of living. Hindu and, curiously, Muslim thug practitioners were both devoted to Kali - the awesome, demon-devouring Hindu goddess - and followed secret rites. They were not common robbers and took considerable pride in their station in life.

Their heartland lay between rocky, arid Madhya Pradesh, in central India, and adjacent Bihar. Initially, the British were oblivious to their operations in sparsely populated places because they were too busy in towns and cantonments. In the 1820s, the repeated unaccountable disappearances of treasure-bearers and the subsequent furore compelled notice. It was Governor General Bentinck's personal interest that turned the matter into a proper investigation, and Sleeman seized the opportunity to further his career by creating a mechanism for the systematic destruction of the cult.

In Dash's words, "It was constructed not of grindstones and gears but of books and papers, and armed not with racks and whirling knives, but with maps and piles of manuscripts and a collection of spidery genealogies that the captain [Sleeman] had sketched out himself, laboriously by hand." This was a trail-blazing event in the history of British crime detection.

In recent years, the revisionist view that thugee was a British invention, a means to tighten their hold in the country, has been given credence in India, France and the US, but this well-researched book objectively questions that assertion. Dash's preference for British colonial place-names is also admirable: it gives modern readers a feel for the era, while his writing captures the poignancy and excitement of the macabre.

Krishna Dutta's cultural companion to Calcutta is published by Signal Books