The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 24, 2002

The unholy tradition of ‘thuggee’
Rajdeep Bains

Confessions of a Thug
by Philip Meadows Taylor
Rupa & Co, New Delhi. Pages 547. Rs 195

Confessions of a ThugWHAT if someone was to tell you that your history and heritage was full of robbers and murderers? I, for one, would find it unacceptable. But truth can, and will, be most unpalatable as Philip Meadows Taylor proves in his shocking revelation about organised crime and murder in the 19th century India.

A true account of the practice of ‘thuggee,’ the narration at once horrifies and fascinates. Using the confessions of Ameer Ali, a notorious leader of thugs who came into contact with the author in 1832, the reader is carried along the tracts and pathways of India of the time when thuggee was practised in as organised and widespread a manner as the Mafia in the later world.

Written in 1837, while the author was recovering from jungle fever, the subject was new, strange, and exciting to the public of England, for whom it was written. The book was in such demand in England, probably hungry for the horrifying accounts with the stamp of reality. A second edition was brought out in 1873. The present version is a reprint of that. Two introductions—for the first two editions—both by the author, provide historical background of the phenomenon. You learn how the system of thuggee became so prevalent—"unknown to, and unsuspected by, the people of India, among whom the professors of it were living in constant association." But when the British did discover the extent of the malaise, they stamped it out with an equal systematic ruthlessness, with total support from the Indian population.


The narration begins in a simple enough manner with the childhood of Ameer Ali but quickly goes on to the murder of his parents and his own abduction by thugs. Ismail, a leader of note among thugs, adopts him, which lays the seeds for his future profession and actions. As a youngster he is inducted into thuggee with elaborate ceremony, among propitious omens for his success in his work. Just how organised the thugs were is revealed by a description of the various sections within the whole— the sothaees, or the inveiglers, whose job it was to entice travellers into the power of the thugs; the lughaees, or the grave-diggers; and the bhuttotes, the actual murderers. Ameer Ali is taught, and quickly becomes proficient at the use of the roomal, or the trademark handkerchief used by thugs for strangling their victims—no sound, no mess. In just a few years we see Ameer Ali rising to the rank of jemadar, or leader, with his own band of thugs under him, along with whom he is responsible for the murder of more than 700 persons. And this is just one band, there may have been thousands more that operated over centuries while the practice lasted

The gory details shock the reader, but what is most appalling is the total lack of remorse or guilt on the part of the thugs. At one point, in fact, the thug compares his work to hunting, which the English were fond of. He says: "A tiger, a panther, a buffalo, or a hog, rouses your uttermost energies for its destruction—you even risk your lives in its pursuit. How much higher game is a Thug’s! His is man: against his fellow-creatures in every degree, from infancy to old age, he has sworn relentless, unerring destruction!"

The author, casually weaving relevant political and cultural history into his writing, gives us a rare account of an aspect, till then, unknown to the official India. It is evident from the rich and picturesque descriptions that the author, being an officer in the British Army, had first hand experience, both with India as well as with the Indians of that time.

Though the book is about the life and adventures of a thug, the author stresses again and again that the book has not been written "to gratify a morbid taste in any one for tales of horror and of crime," but to "expose, as fully as I was able, the practices of thugs, and to make the public of England more conversant with the subject than they can be at present."

Since the whole book is a narration of his crimes by the thug, there is obviously no plot or story line in the narrative, which, however, does not reduce the interest, generated by the subject itself. The entire Confessions are such a minutely detailed account of crime as is sure to horrify the modern-day reader as much as it did the 19th century British, for whom it was written.

Overall, a very well researched book, which succeeds in its professed intention of exciting the revulsion of the reader towards thuggee and thugs. A major shortcoming in this edition is a bad job of proof reading, which tends to undermine the good quality of the work. Otherwise, it should make very interesting reading for both the historically inclined as well as the casual reader.