Thuggee: “The Cunningest Robbers in the World”

In the 1800s, the British claimed to have vanquished a secret cult of Kali-worshipping murderers in India. But did they ever exist?

Alizeh Kohari

August 23, 2021

Thuggee: “The Cunningest Robbers in the World”
A groups of thugs strangling a traveller on a highway in India in the early 19th century. Anonymous Indian artist. Made for Capt. James Paton, Assistant to the British Resident at Lucknow, 1829-1840.

This is how the story goes: between Delhi and Agra, perhaps across all of India, roamed a sect, a caste, a murderous fraternity of stranglers. They crouched in bushes and huddled in treetops along forlorn paths, silk scarves in hand — silent, waiting. When unsuspecting travelers stopped to rest for the afternoon or night — tethering their horses, pitching their tents, bathing in buckets of cool well water, then dozing off to the shrieks of nearby langurs — the marauders moved closer, then struck, lightning-quick. The travelers never made it to their destination. The official registers of British-administered India attributed their deaths to ‘misadventure.’ In the first decades of the 19th century, nearly 40,000 people were said to die every year in this manner. Almost all were locals.

India in the early 1800s was a curious, in-between place. Large swathes of the region had succumbed to British company rule, but administrative control was still tenuous, unconsolidated. Because these disappearances — presumed murders, although bodies were rarely recovered — were of natives, they didn’t really perturb the British.

There are some scattered references to a percolating law-and-order problem — military commanders warning sepoys against traveling at night or carrying large wads of cash — but within a few decades, a new narrative had taken hold: devotees of a murderous cult, Hindus and Muslims alike, overran India’s highways and robbed innocent travelers, strangled them, hacked the corpses and hid the remains, then hauled their plunder to the temple and offered it up to the goddess Kali. They spoke a secret language. They lived in villages and pretended to be farmers. They were impossible to pin down. They were known as thuggee.