The Religion Of Murder

There are certain periodical publications which as a rule are neither

examined nor discussed. Yet their existence dates back for many years,

and in this age of filing and docketing they must by now provide a

regular gold-mine for the study of human psychology. What increases

their value is that they avoid all attempt at "literary effect." No

picked phrases, no situations invented or dramatised to suit the taste

of t
e author; nothing but facts taken from real life and recorded by

the functionaries of His Majesty the Emperor of India. We are

referring to those very interesting _Reports of the Indian Government_

to which we owe practically all our knowledge of fakirism and its

miracles, of the artificial conservation of human life in the tomb, and

of the strangulation rites of the Thugs. They are indeed a valuable

contribution to the study of the perversions of religious faith--that

most alluring and yet least explored section of psychology.

A librarian at the British Museum showed me some years ago one of the

most suggestive documents that the art of cartography has ever

produced. It was the famous map prepared by Captain Paton, about 1890,

for the British Government, showing the various neighbourhoods in which

the Thugs had strangled and buried their victims. Drawn up according

to precise information furnished by several leaders of the sect, it

indicated every tomb in the province of Oudh, where the majority of the

worshippers of the goddess Kali were to be found. The written

descriptions that accompanied the map were particularly interesting,

for--like Swift, when he enumerated the benefits that would accrue to

the starving Irish people if they killed their children like sheep and

ate them instead of mutton--Captain Paton felt himself compelled to

record the glorious deeds of some of the most valiant of the Thugs. He

gave details which would have rejoiced the imagination of a de Quincey

or an Edgar Allan Poe. About 5200 murders had been committed by a

company of forty people, all highly thought of and commanding general

respect. At their head was the venerable Buhram, who laid claim to 931

assassinations during his forty years of religious activity in the

province of Oudh. The second in merit, one Ramson, had strangled 608

people. The third, it is true, could only claim about 500, but he had

reached this figure in thirty years, and had made a record of 25

murders in one year. Others had to their credit 377, 340 and 264

assassinations respectively, after which one dropped from these heights

to figures of twenty, ten or even only five annual murders in honour of

Kali. This record undoubtedly represented the supreme flower of the

religion of this goddess, who not only taught her followers the art of

strangulation, but also succeeded in hiding their deeds from the

suspicious eyes of unbelievers.

Murders followed thick and fast, one upon another, but though thousands

of Hindus, rich and poor, young and old, were known to disappear, their

terrified families scarcely dared to complain. English statisticians

go so far as to say that from thirty to fifty thousand human lives were

sacrificed every year on the altar of this fatal goddess, who, desiring

to thwart the growth of the too prolific life-principle in the

universe, incited her worshippers to the suppression and destruction of

human beings. But while using her power to shelter her followers from

suspicion and discovery, Kali expected them, for their part, to take

care that none witnessed the performance of her duties. One day

misfortune fell upon them. A novice of the cult had the daring to spy

upon the goddess while she was occupied in destroying the traces of her

rite, and Kali's divine modesty being wounded, she declared that in

future she would no longer watch over the earthly safety of her

followers, but that they themselves must be responsible for concealing

their deeds from the eyes of men. Thus, after having worshipped her

with impunity for centuries, the Thugs all at once found themselves

exposed to the suspicions of their fellow-countrymen, and above all, of

the British Government. Captain Sleeman played the part of their evil

genius, for in his anger at their abominable deeds he decided, in spite

of the resistance offered by the heads of the East India Company, to

wage war to the knife against the religion of Kali. Such alarming

reports were received in England that at last the home authorities were

aroused, and in 1830 a special official was appointed to direct

operations (the General Superintendent of Operations against Thuggee).

Captain Sleeman was chosen to fill the appointment, and he dedicated to

it all his courage and practically his whole life. The tale of the

twenty years' struggle that followed would put the most thrilling

dramas of fiction in the shade.

In the works founded on Captain Sleeman's reports, and above all in his

own official documents, are found remarkable accounts of the ways in

which the Thugs lured their victims to their doom.

A Mongol officer of noble bearing was travelling to the province of

Oudh accompanied by two faithful servants. He halted on his way near

the Ganges, and was there accosted by a group of men, polite in speech

and respectable in appearance, who asked permission to finish their

journey under his protection. The officer refused angrily and begged

them to let him go on his way alone. The strangers tried to persuade

him that his suspicions were unjust, but, seeing his nostrils inflate

and his eyes gleam with rage, they finally desisted. The next day he

met another group of travellers, dressed in Moslem fashion, who spoke

to him of the danger of travelling alone and begged him to accept their

escort. Once more the officer's eyes flashed with rage; he threatened

them with his sword, and was left to proceed in peace. Many times

again the brave Mongol, always on his guard, succeeded in thwarting the

designs of his mysterious fellow-travellers, but on the fourth day he

reached a barren plain where, a few steps from the track, six Moslems

were weeping over the body of one who had succumbed to the hardships of

the journey. They had already dug a hole in the earth to inter the

corpse, when it was discovered that not one of them could read the

Koran. On their knees they implored the Mongol officer to render this

service to the dead. He dismounted from his horse, unable to resist

their pleadings, and feeling bound by his religion to accede to their


Having discarded his sword and pistols, he performed the necessary

ablutions, and then approached the grave to recite the prayers for the

dead. Suddenly cloths were thrown over his own and his servants'

heads, and after a few moments all three were precipitated into the

yawning hole.

It may be asked why so much cunning was needed in order to add a few

more members to the kingdom of the dead. The reason is that the Thugs

were forbidden to shed human blood. The sacrifice could only be

accomplished through death by strangling. It might often be easy

enough to fall upon solitary travellers, but woe to the Thug who in any

way brought about the shedding of blood! Consequently they had to have

recourse to all sorts of ingenious methods for allaying suspicion, so

that their victims might be hastened into the next world according to

the rites approved by their implacable goddess. They believed in

division of labour, and always acted collectively, employing some to

entice the victim into the trap, and others to perform the act of

strangulation, while in the third category were those who first dug the

graves and afterwards rendered them invisible.

The murders were always accomplished with a kind of cold-blooded

fanaticism, admitting neither mercy nor pity, for the Thug, convinced

that his action would count as a special virtue for himself in the next

life, also believed that his victim would benefit from it.

Feringhi, one of the most famous of Indian stranglers, who also held a

responsible official position, was once asked if he was not ashamed to

kill his neighbour.

"No," he replied, "because one cannot be ashamed to fulfil the divine

will. In doing so one finds happiness. No man who has once understood

and practised the religion of Thuggee will ever cease to conform to it

to the end of his days. I was initiated into it by my father when I

was very young, and if I were to live for a thousand years I should

still continue to follow in his footsteps."

The Thugs of each district were led by one whom they called their

_jemadar_, to whom they gave implicit obedience. The utmost discretion

reigned among them, and they never questioned the plans of their

superiors. We can imagine how difficult it was to combat a fanaticism

which feared nothing, not even death; for when death overtook them, as

it sometimes did, in the performance of their rites, they merely looked

upon it as a means of drawing nearer to their goddess.

The origin of this extraordinary religion seems to be hidden in the

mists of the past, though European travellers claim to have met with it

in India in the seventeenth century. We may note that during the

Mahometan invasion all sorts of crimes were committed in the name of

religion, and possibly the murders in honour of Kali were a survival

from this time. As years went by the sect increased rapidly, and many

of the most peaceable Hindus were attracted by it, and joined it in the

capacity of grave-concealers, spies, or merely as passive adherents who

contributed large sums of money. In Sleeman's time about two thousand

Thugs were arrested and put to death every year, but nevertheless their

numbers, towards the end of the nineteenth century, were steadily

increasing. (Of recent years, however, a considerable diminution has

been shown.) In 1895 only three are recorded to have been condemned to

death for murder; in 1896, ten; and in 1897, twenty-five; while

travellers in Rajputana and the Hyderabad district speak of much higher

figures. The Thugs always bear in mind the maxim that "dead men tell

no tales," and their practice of killing all the companions of the

chosen victim, as well as himself, renders the detection of their

crimes extremely difficult; while their mastery of the art of getting

rid of corpses frequently baffles the authorities. Further, the

terrified families of the victims, dreading reprisals, often fail to

report the deaths, so that the sect has thus been enabled to continue

its murderous rites in spite of all measures taken to stamp it out.

They avoid killing women, except in the case of women accompanying a

man who has been doomed to death, when they must be sacrificed in order

to prevent their reporting the crime. Stranger still, they admit that

murder is not always a virtuous action, but that there are criminal

murders which deserve punishment.

"When a Thug is killed," said one of them to the celebrated Sleeman,

"or when one does not belong to the sect, and kills without conforming

to the rites, it is a crime, and should be punished."

They seem to experience a strange and voluptuous pleasure when

performing their rites of strangulation--a pleasure increased, no

doubt, by the knowledge that their goddess looks on with approval. Yet

even the most hardened among them is capable of the greatest chivalry

when women are concerned, and a rigorous inquiry into the details of

thousands of their crimes has failed to reveal any single attempt at

violation. A Thug returning from one of his ritualistic expeditions

may show himself to be a good and affectionate husband and father, and

a charitable neighbour. Apart from numerous acts of assassination, on

which he prides himself, his conduct is usually irreproachable. No

wonder that he fills the English magistrates with stupefaction, and

that justice does not always dare to strike when it can act more

effectively by persuasion or seclusion.

All things evolve with the passage of time, and in the twentieth

century even the rite of strangulation has undergone changes. From the

main sect of Thuggee, other branches of a new and unlooked-for type

have sprung. These, instead of strangling their neighbours, prefer to

poison them, the virtue being the same and the method easier and more

expeditious. Their proceedings, though more difficult to control, are

quite as lucrative for Kali, the devourer of human life, and if they

have made their goddess less notorious than did the Thugs, they

certainly worship her with equal ardour.