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
Friday 08 July 2005
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
MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word
Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Sean Abbott: Messages of support flood in for bowler following death of batsman Phil Hughes
- 2 Ridley Scott on Exodus, Gods and Kings casting: 'I'm not going to get it financed if my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such'
- 3 Girl, 7, gets Tesco to remove 'stupid' sign suggesting superheroes are 'for boys'
- 4 This letter from a reader explains why women can’t play football
- 5 'You should come to my house and eat cheeses with me': 4-year-old sends adorable love letter to girl at school
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' close to camp
This house and dental clinic 'piled up like bricks on the brink of collapsing' is why Japan wins at architecture
Ridley Scott on Exodus, Gods and Kings casting: 'I'm not going to get it financed if my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such'
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Jurassic World trailer already facing criticism from palaeontologists
Ukip says babies born to immigrants in the UK should be classed as migrants – which would include Nigel Farage’s own children
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police
Rochester aftermath: Sacking of Emily Thornberry will make work of Labour MPs '10 times harder'