Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, and Katrina Kaif starrer Thugs Of Hindostan's trailer is trending on Youtube for all kinds of reasons. This epic action-adventure is making news for its eerie similarity to Pirates Of The Caribbean. But did you know there actually existed thugs in Hindostan, and with them followed the chilling narratives built around their doings?
Often used as a slang, the term 'thug' has Indian origins and a history attached it.
The largely accepted meaning of this term is a group of stranglers and robbers who would befriend fellow travellers, only to loot, strangle, and then bury them in seclusion.
The term 'thug' entered mainstream with the 1816 British account of Dr. Robert Sherwood, 'Of The Murderers Called Phansigars'.
The very first mention of the term 'thug' can be found in the 10th century writings of Indian philosopher Bhasavarjna. In the 16th century Surdas wrote:
As a thug lures a pilgrim with laddus sweet with wine; make him drunk and trusting takes his money and his life.
Sherwood's account mentions a religious element to this fraternity of stranglers. Active in the Delhi – Jabalpur route, these 'thugs' were undoubtedly irritants for the British colonisers, who were bent on establishing their 'law and order' in the country.
Thugs had a peculiar way of killing.
"They were the charming and seasoned killers, who were proficient in killing people without shedding a drop of blood, they used scarf or rumal for strangulation. This means of killing earned them the tags of Phansigars, stranglers. They would then offer the killings as sacrifice to Kali."
This murderous cult tribe reportedly operated for 500 years, having killed a shocking 40,000 people per year and a total of around 2 lakh people, which also is a Guinness World Record.
Chills, literally, chills.
William Henry Sleeman, a Civil servant and an army officer put an end to the merciless killings of these 'thugs'. Motivated by the Enlightenment propaganda of the British for the 'uplifting of the heathen', he took it upon himself, after being posted in charge of the Jubbulpore district in 1935, to obliterate this 'secret criminal group'.
Sleeman's writings caught the imagination of the British reader. At a time of evangelical missions in India, 'thugs' became an appropriate symbol of the 'darkness and strangeness' of the East, that was in dire need to be 'controlled'.
In 1839, Phillip Meadows Taylor’s 'Confessions of a Thug', a fictional account of these thugs became a hit among the British readers, including Queen Victoria.
It is to be understood that these accounts fictional or otherwise were criticised for being "exaggerations". These narratives built around the lootings and strangulations in India, also remain a colonial explanation as to why they had to 'govern' and 'rule' us, for our own good.
Historian Kim Wagner questions-
“As one of the most potent images of colonial lore and fiction, interpretations of the reality, meaning, and representation of thuggee vary. Were the thugs religious fanatics who practiced human sacrifice? Or were they a mere figment of colonial imagination, invented as a convenient pretext for the expansion of British rule?”
The history of thug becomes a mystery, and unknowability of the truth in the face of no physical-historical remains of thuggee, adds to our fascination.
It remains to be seen how Thugs Of Hindostan will deal with this concept, or will it just play on the superficial fascination for the 'unknown' that is connoted by the term 'thug'.