Roads in India weren’t much safe for travel during the 18th and 19thcentury, robbers and dacoits sniffed around for travelers, for loot and plunder. Each gang had their own set of norms and customs, and there were some special types of murderer cum robbers, called “Thuggees” who are the subject of today’s article. The Hindi word “thug” means “deceiver”, since their principal mode of operation was deceit. The word has found a place in English dictionary and also used to mean Phansigars or stranglers.
A special class of “Thuggees” is “Phansigars” (stranglers) who strangled highway travelers and robbed them of their belongings. Phansigars were present almost in all the parts of India, especially in the modern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, in the South and Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh in the North.
The Phansigars generally avoided British troops and travelers and left them untouched, but they were a real danger to ordinary Indian travelers especially businessmen who travelled from one corner of India to another. The stranglers were extremely professional in executing their task, and maintained top notch secrecy about their occupation. In fact they took their unscrupulous activities as any other “profession”.
The stranglers always roamed in a group of twenty or twenty five, the number of persons in a group varied, each group had a leader, a sardar, who was the mastermind behind any operation. While roaming through highways if the informers in the group located a band of travelers the news was immediately passed to the ring leader who in turn chalked out a plan. The usual mode of operation was to introduce themselves to the victims as “travelers” themselves and looking for a group to travel with. In those times no one wished to undertake a journey alone, travelling was always in groups. The stranglers were expert actors and dressed in ordinary they never took any disguise of any sort. Some of them were really good singers and musicians and entertained their “co-travelers” with lively music and good behavior. In this way they made themselves immune to suspicion and by their good behavior won the hearts of their victim.
They carefully observed their victims, and travelled with the group until they reached a safe place to execute their evil plan. The specialty of the stranglers was to strangle their victim to death, for this they used a long yellow or white scarf or handkerchief and tied a nose around the victim’s throat when the latter was unsuspecting or least prepared for assault. This operation generally required three stranglers per victim, one of them suddenly threw the noose around the victim’s neck, and the second pulled tightly the other end of the cloth, while the third pulled the legs of the victim so that he fell face down and would offer least resistance. The two stranglers held the noose tightly and pinned the head of the victim to the ground. The third while grasping the legs of the victim hit him around the sensitive parts until he collapsed.
They completed this “task” so meticulously and silently that no one would know. One by one they made sure that each one of the group was strangled and then they robbed them of their belongings and sometimes even stripped naked the dead to find any precious objects hidden inside clothes. After acquiring the riches or bounty they usually buried the dead or threw the body in thick vegetation making it difficult to locate, also reducing the possibility of raising an alarm thereby. The most usual method of hiding bodies was to throw the dead inside a well.
They never robbed their victim without first murdering them, and choose an “auspicious” day for this purpose. Generally rainy seasons were avoided because that made things little nasty. Also before launching the final operation some of the members of the group were sent on ahead to keep a watch and to prevent intrusion, only when green signal was received from the advance party the operation was launched. If by any chance another group of travelers arrived and saw the dead the stranglers would pretend and act as if they were their own relative who fell dead on the way. Then by some means especially by their excellent talents in convincing people, they would murder the newly arrived group too.
The distribution of the plunder was officially done by the “sardar” or the leader and each one got their share. The most interesting thing about them was their varied modus operandi, when they had decided to rob a group or person they were extremely patient and determined to finish their task. To complete a mission if they needed to travel miles they were never indolent to do it. The technique adopted for strangulation were multiple and very ingenious, for example if a traveler was riding a horse a party of stranglers would be riding ahead, with another in the rear, and a third walked beside the traveler and kept him engaged in conversation. Suddenly when the traveler was least expecting or off guard, the strangler walking beside him pulled him down the horse, threw him to the ground, and tied a noose around his neck while his comrades backed up immediately for his assistance. However a reputed strangler would be one who needed no assistance in strangling, and took a lot of pride in this murderous skill.
But they had some code of conduct too, and they purposefully maintained some ethics in their weird profession. The Phansigarsnever assaulted lades, physically challenged, or kids but if they belonged to a group along with men, they would not be spared. They did not attack artisans and craftsmen who indulged in making gold ornaments. While distributing the plunder they usually kept some money to spend later during the religious festivities or allotted some money for the widow of a deceased member of the gang who died in action or in natural causes. So as you can see this was a evil fraternity, a kind of a secret group.
This was a special type of secret group whose membership passed from a father to his son. Children above the age of 10 were recruited in the group by their fathers; however their initial appointment was only as an apprentice. Immediately after joining the group he was put under the care of a tutor, usually a relative who took great care of the child. While serving as a provisionary member the boy was kept in dark about the real activity of the gang. During the murders he would be taken away from the scene of the crime by some pretext and only after the tasks were finished he was rejoined by the group. He had to serve a long time in group until he attained the age of 18 or had acquired considerable physical strength when the actual business of the gang was disclosed to him in an auspicious day. In this day after some rituals he was made a member of the gang and from the very next day his lessons began. He was informed about all the secret activities of the group and the art of strangulation was taught to him. While still a novice he would take part in the strangulation until after several slaughters of this nature he became a true master and brightened the face of the family! Later when he had made quite a name for himself he often offered presents to his old tutor until he died.
It would be wrong to perceive that the family of the Phansigars never knew of the actual occupation. Usually their mothers and wives knew about their dark deeds but rarely involved themselves in these matters. The Phansigars took a small occupation which was an eye wash, while not serving in action they were like another village folk, farming or making handicrafts. They maintained their ordinary lifestyle until a message was received from the ring leader to regroup for some specific reason. Then they left their family and travelled miles to complete their mission and returned after days or sometimes months. Intermarriages among the Phansigars were not an uncommon thing and it tightened the bonds of their fraternity.
They had some weird but interesting customs too; they heavily relied on omens and were extremely superstitious. They would not embark on a mission in a day where a member of the group had seen an unfavorable omen. Usually an advance party was sent inside forest where they would take notice of the movement of the birds and chirping of the lizards until they saw something extremely lucky and return to tell the good news to their ring leader. They refrained from attacking tigers and killing them, in fact they believed no Phansigar should ever kill a tiger nor a tiger would kill any Phansigar until he has cheated the group or was disloyal to his group.
The threat of Phanisgars became so rampant that Hyder Ali, father of Tipu Sultan sought out to destroy them. He caught hold of some bands and punished them cruelly but was not successful to banish this group entirely. Tipu Sultan when he became the ruler of Mysore took some measures to curb the activities of the stranglers; eventually he got hold of some of stranglers and maimed them, cut them down but this turned to be a momentary achievement.
The most notable man who displayed extraordinary merit and efficiency in hunting down Thuggees and curbing their age old profession was William Sleeman (8 August 1788 – 10 February 1856). In fact, wherever there is any discussion relating to the “Thuggees” the name of William Sleeman finds an obvious mention. This fine British Officer was entrusted with the duty to curtail the activities of the “Thuggees”. That was in 1826, but it was not until 1830 when he held the civil charge of Jubbulpore (now Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh) district that the Government officially appointed him to prosecute the suppression of the Thuggeeover the whole of central India. It was not an easy task he had numerous obstacles to conquer.
The first of these obstacles were to gather witness and informer who could provide some basic information about the Thuggees, their movement their course of action etc. No one would dare to be an informer or witness because of the act of retribution from the Thuggees but eventually Sleeman was able to convince people in doing this task. He had established several offices in Central India to track down Thuggees and deployed a number of patrol officers who kept a vigil all around. Whenever a group was caught the members of the group were asked to become an informer and save his life from the punishment reserved for such actions. Initially the Thuggees were obdurate and refusing to betray the gang but once Sleeman convinced them that their betrayal would save many lives, bit by bit he gathered several turncoats, who eventually became informers and they helped him to understand the whole cult of the Thuggeesand their modus operandi.
Sleeman’s approach to reduce the Thuggee cult was quite unique and requires mention. He not only hunted down Thuggees and brought them to justice, but made ample observations and study regarding them. He carefully documented all the information about them and passed on any new information to his subordinate officers so this way the whole network of officers dealing with this threat was kept updated. In doing this he made an excellent repository of information on the Thuggees, their origin, their culture, their movements and most importantly their motive.
During his time a famous Thuggee by the name of Feringheea lurked across Madhya Pradesh, and finally Sleeman narrowed down to him. He employed his spies and patrol officers to hunt down the Prince of Thugs, and eventually Feringheea was caught and handed over to Sleeman in December 1830. Feringheeawas a great catch since in his last expedition within few weeks his gang had strangled 100 men and 5 women! Sleeman needed this man at his side, and therefore after a lot of bargaining with the Government he was finally able to obtain a pardon for Feringheea and made him an informer. Feringheeahelped him immensely through him Sleeman was able to understand the whole network of Thuggees working in Central India and caught a lot of them.
Through an assessment in 1840 we know that 3689 Thuggeeswere caught and committed to trial, of these 466 were hanged, 1564 were transported for life, 933 imprisoned for life, and 56 admitted as approvers of the remaining some were acquitted or released for good behavior. However this is only a fraction of the achievements of William Sleeman, for he had resolved to eradicate this menace from its roots. For this purpose he constructed establishments where alternative careers could be pursued by the approvers (Thuggees who became informers) or their children. In these establishments the resettled Thuggeesand their children did brick making, building, cleaning, also received training in weaving and knitting and made blankets, druggets, clothes and taper wicks, and carpets. These establishments became so famous that Queen Victoria demanded a carpet woven by the rehabilitated Thuggees for the Windsor Castle. Sleeman’s thugs made a wonderful carpet, measuring 80 by 40 feet, weighing around 2 tons for the Waterloo Chamber! With the changing scenario of the Thuggees, Sleeman now acquired a new name, from William Sleeman be became, “ThuggeeSleeman”!
Thuggee Sleeman as he was called locally became the hero of Jubbulpore. In 1937 Colonel Sir James Sleeman, (the grandson of W H Sleeman) and his son visited a village near Jubbulpore and were given a splendid welcome from the villagers there. The father and the son visited a local shrine where their great ancestor once paid a visit, and saw a lamp burning brightly. Soon they realized that alike the inextinguishable flames of the lamp the memoirs of their legendary ancestor always remained in the hearts and minds of the villagers. It so happened in 1832 that William Sleeman and his wife Amelie already married for four years still without children visited this place and was approached by an elderly Brahmin who requested them to visit this shrine. The couple visited the temple and offered their prayers and gifts, and promised of further gifts if they were blessed with a child. In the following year in 1833 Amelie gave birth to a male child, he was named Henry Arthur and the beguiled couple did visit the shrine again and offered gifts. It was not all, the villagers became so great a fan of “Thuggee Sleeman” that they named the place, Sleemanabad, and till this day it is identified with that name!
The Thugs or Phansigars of India, Captain W H Sleeman
The Life and Times of Maj. Gen. William Henry Sleeman: Elimination of Thuggies in India, By Giriraj Shah