A Note on Thug Life

Thug enters the English language in the early 19th century as an import from colonial India. The original thugs, or thagi, were itinerant bands of thieves and marauders who strangled their victims to death. The practice was known as P’hansigár, from the Hindustani word P’hánsí, noose.

The methods of the thug are described by James Arthur Stevenson in an 1834 paper that he read before the Royal Asiatic Society:

The chief object in view is to lull their victim into a sense of security before they proceed to deprive him of life, which is…always effected by strangulation. When a favorable opportunity presents itself, one of the party throws a noose, which is made with a tightly twisted handkerchief, round the destined sufferer’s neck; an accomplice immediately strikes the person on the inside of his knees, so as to knock him off his legs, and thus throw the whole weight of his body on the noose; and a very few seconds puts an end to the unfortunate man’s struggles.

The victim would be buried and the booty sent back home.

Other writers at the time remark on how expert the thugs are in the art of deception, false friendship and smooth talk. Lawrence James, who describes the work of these “inveiglers” in Raj, says that “deception” (and only incidentally robbery and murder, I suppose) was “their trade.” Stevenson called them “the most decided villains that stain the face of the earth”; and by 1855, a British civil servant urged that the thugs ought to be considered “an infernal machine beneath the keel of the good ship government,” subversive to civilizing measures of the British colonial project.

And indeed they were, not just because they created mayhem and committed murder, but because the practice of thugee was, to use a fancy word for it, incommensurable with the moral outlook of the colonizers.

Thug life was governed by ritual and devotion to the goddess Kali. The corpses of victims were stabbed; the stabbing may have once involved more elaborate rituals of sacrifice. It seems, from British accounts, the thugs regarded their murders not as crimes but almost as a perfectly legitimate trade into which they were born, as the son of a blacksmith might regard work at the forge. They talked about themselves almost as members of a social caste.

When they were apprehended,

the thugs were unmoved by their fate; in one instance several under sentence of death sung cheerily on their way to the scaffold and hung themselves rather than die at the polluted hands of an executioner who was a leather dresser.

A correspondent named James Paton interviewed a band of captured thugs in 1836 and was shocked by the “relish and pleasure” with which they confessed to horrible crimes. They took pride in good kills, and did not venture out without performing oblations and ablutions and reading omens. They were hunters of men.

European accounts of thugs, beginning with Jean de Thévenot’s late seventeenth-century Voyages, would make a fascinating study in the “documentary” aspect of early anthropology. In the 1850s, the Italian photographer Felice Beato photographed a group of four thugs demonstrating the use of the P’hánsí. I found what I believe is a copy on Mike Dash’s site.

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