GRANTA £20 (356pp) £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus brought her Bangerz tour to London's O2 Arena last night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
    Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

    From strung out to playing strings

    Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
    The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
    Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

    Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

    The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
    On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

    On the road to nowhere

    A Routemaster trip to remember
    Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

    Hotel India

    Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
    10 best pencil cases

    Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

    Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
    Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

    Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

    Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
    Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

    Pete Jenson: A Different League

    Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
    This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

    The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

    Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis