The English word thug, meaning a violent criminal, comes from the Hindi word thag (and originally from the Sanskrit word sthaga), meaning a thief or villain.
The goddess Kali
The original Thugs were small bands of roving criminals in India who strangled and robbed travellers. Originally these gangs committed murder following precise religious rites to honour Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction.The crime was known as Thuggee.
In the 19th century Thugs were strangling 40,000 people a year but by then many cases of Thuggee were straightforward robbery with no religious significance.
In Confessions Of A Thug, written in 1837, Phillip Meadows described how the members of a band of Thugs specialised in different roles. There were the sothaees who lured travellers; the lughaees, who dug the graves in advance; and the bhuttotes, who killed. The victims were strangled with a scarf called a roomal. Although the book is fictional, Meadows based some of it on the evidence of a captured Thug called Ameer Ali.
A typical Thug killing was done by joining a group of travellers and entertaining and cooking for them so that the travellers were soon off their guard.
At a pre-arranged signal (the code phrase was bring the tobacco) the Thugs would strangle the male travellers and take everything of value. The Thugs kept the valuables themselves and dedicated the corpses to Kali.
Although Thugs never attacked English travellers the British government of India decided to eliminate them, and over 3000 Thugs were captured by William Sleeman during the 1830s. 483 Thugs gave evidence against the rest, 412 were hanged and the rest imprisoned or rehabilitated.
Sleeman is still commemorated in the name of the Indian village of Sleemanabad (where it is said that his picture still hangs in the police station).
The Indian population had suffered greatly from Thug activities and supported the British action against the cult, although one modern writer has described it as a witch-hunt.
The Thug cult was extinct by 1890, but the concept of 'criminal tribes' and 'criminal castes' is still in use in India.
Thuggee sometimes turns up in adventure books and films – you'll find it in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and in Gunga Din – and it's elegantly described in this passage from Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days:
"The travellers crossed, beyond Milligaum, the fatal country so often stained with blood by the sectaries of the goddess Kali... It was thereabouts that Feringhea, the Thuggee chief, king of the stranglers, held his sway.
"These ruffians, united by a secret bond, strangled victims of every age in honour of the goddess Death, without ever shedding blood; there was a period when this part of the country could scarcely be travelled over without corpses being found in every direction.
"The English Government has succeeded in greatly diminishing these murders, though the Thuggees still exist, and pursue the exercise of their horrible rites."