Thugs (Hindu, thugna, "to deceive" ), a religious fraternity in India, professedly in honor of the goddess. Kall, wife of Siva, who were addicted to the committal of murders, and lived chiefly upon the plunder obtained from their victims. They were also called Phansigars, or "stranglers," from the Hindustani phansi, a "noose." 'The proceedings of the Thugs were generally these banding together in gangs of from ten to fifty, and sometimes as high as three hundred, they assumed the appearance of ordinary traders; traveling, if able on horseback with tents and other comforts; if not able to travel in this manner, they assumed more humble characters. Each gang had its jemadar, or leader; its guru, or teacher; its sothas, or entrappers; its bhuttotes, or stranglers; and its laghaees, or grave-diggers.
Their mode of procedure was generally as follows: Some of the gang were employed to collect information respecting the movements of persons of means; and when they found one about to undertake a journey, endeavored to insinuate themselves into his confidence. They then proposed to him to travel in their company, under the plea of safety or for the sake of society, or else followed him, waiting for an opportunity to murder. This was generally accomplished by throwing a cloth around the neck of a victim, disabling him by strangulation, and then inflicting the fatal injury. After the murder was perpetrated, the body was mutilated and secretly buried, so as to make detection the more difficult. The mode of dividing the plunder seems to have been to appropriate one third to their goddess Kali, one third unto the widows and orphans of the sect, and the remainder to the partners in the assassination.
The Thugs had for their patron goddess Devi or Kali, in whose name they exercised their profession, and to whom they ascribed their origin. Formerly they believed Kalf assisted them by devouring the bodies of their victims; but through the curiosity of one 9f the profession who pried into the proceedings of the goddess, she became displeased and condemned them in future to bury their victims. She, however, presented her worshippers with one of her teeth for a pickaxe, a rib for a knife, and the hem of her lower garment for a noose. The pickaxe was regarded with the highest reverence by the Thugs; it was made with the greatest care, consecrated by many and minutely regulated ceremonies; entrusted to one selected for this dignity on account of his shrewdness, caution, and sobriety; and was submitted to special purifications each time after it had been used in the preparation of a grave.
In honor of their guardian deity, there is a temple dedicated at Bindachul, near Mirzapur, to the north of Bengal. When about to go out upon a murdering expedition, the Thugs betook themselves to the temple of the goddess, presented their prayers, supplications, and offerings there, and vowed, in the event of success, to consecrate to her service a large proportion of the booty. So implicit was their trust in Kali that no amount of misfortune, even death, could make them waver in their faith in her. All the evil that befell them they attributed to a want of faithful observance of all the divinely appointed rules of their sanguinary craft. After every murder they performed a special solemnity called Tapuni, the principal feature of which consisted in addressing a prayer to the goddess, and in making the murderers partake of gau; or consecrated sugar, the effect of which was believed to be irresistible. Another feast observed by the Thugs throughout India is Kurhae Karna, or Kote. It is also in honor of Kali, and the requisites for its celebration are goats, rice, ghee (butter), spices, and spirits. 'The superstitions of the Thugs are all of Hindu origin; but they are also adopted by the Mouammedans, who, while stout adherents to the tenets of the Koran, yet pay divine honors to the Hindu goddess of destruction. This inconsistency they sometimes reconcile by identifying Kali, whose other name is Bhavani, with Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed, and wife of All, and by saying that Fatima invented the use of the noose to strangle the great daemon Rukutbijdana.
At various periods steps have been taken by the native and English governments to suppress the Thugs, but it is only since 1831 that energetic measures have been adopted by the British authorities to counteract the evil This has been successfully accomplished by captain (afterwards Sir William) Sleeman, who secured the arrest of every known Thug, or relative of a Thug, in India. They were colonized at Jubbulpore, where technical instruction was afforded them and their children. Their descendants are still under government supervision there, and the practice of Thuggee has become extinct. For a fuller account of the Thugs the reader is referred to Sleeman, Ramaseeana, or a Vocabulary of the Peculiar Language used by the Thugs (1836); Taylor, The Confessions of a Thug (Lond. 1858); Thornton, Illustrations of the History and Practices of the Thugs (ibid. 1837).