Idol depicting the Hindu goddess Kali
(Photo from Hindu Goddess)
I thought that sounded too weird. What could thugs and Kali possibly have to do with each other? I guessed that it's an onomatopoeic word that describes the sound of getting hit on the head with a blunt instrument before getting robbed.
Turns out I was way wrong, and the Anonymous Californian was right.
It also turns out that the historiography about thugs has changed a lot over the past decade or so. I'll tell you how the story has gone for a long time, then how it's recently been changed. Then I'll tell you about the current pop culture usage of the word.
The Original Story
- The story goes that there was a band of robbers who lived in India. By religious persuasion, they were Hindi. In particular, they were fans of Kali, who is known mainly as the dark goddess, or the goddess of destruction.
- The Hindi word for their group is thag (the t has a dot under it), which in English got turned into thug. The people who were members of the group were called Thugs, and the group as a whole was called Thuggee.
- The word thag means "cheat, swindler, deceiver."
- Most dictionaries say that the more accurate word for this band of bad guys is Phansigar, which means "strangler." This is because, the stories have it, the Thugs would loop a cloth or they'd drop a metal ring concealed within a cloth around the necks of their victims and strangle them.
- Some stories say that the Thugs would tighten the loop, then release it to allow their victims to breathe for a bit, then tighten it again, thus drawing out the death. They didn't mean to inflict torture; they thought of death as a rite of passage, both for the victim and for the murderer.
Ceramic figurine depicting Thugs at work
(Photo from anomalies-unlimited)
- They perpetrated such murders in honor of Kali, to show their allegiance to her and to their cult. Honoring her meant killing in a way that was similar to how she had done it in the stories, which is to say by strangling and by leaving no mark or blemish on the victim.
- Most of the time, the Thugs were placid, law-abiding people. But, so the stories went, three times a year, these people would commit these terrible crimes. In this apparently dual existence, they demonstrated their deception and thus deserved the name thug, "deceiver."
- The Thugs had a whole list of people they would not target -- women, beggars, the physically disabled, and those who practiced certain crafts. Nearly exclusively, they targeted travelers.
- The Thugs would disguise themselves as a group of travelers, sometimes as many as 60 of them at once, and thus lure unsuspecting real travelers to join their group, thinking they had found safety in numbers. Once the Thugs had their unsuspecting victims well away from any help, they would attack the real travelers, robbing them, killing them, and burying them in graves of very specific proportions.
Thugs and poisoners, c. 1857. The guy in the white mustache holding what looks like a looped string in his right hand and the guy crouching to his left are Thugs.
(The New World Encyclopedia has labeled this image "Thugs and Prisoners." But somebody misread the original caption)
- All sorts of estimates have been made of the number of victims killed by the Thugs. Some say one million, some say two million. The high-estimators say these numbers are borne out by the fact that Thuggee was in existence for several centuries. Others say no, Thuggee wasn't really around for that long and there weren't that many murders, the Thugs mainly committed robbery, so the number of people killed was more like 50,000.
- In the 1830s when the British shifted from trading with India to trying to control it, the British military set about suppressing Thuggee. The British told people about the traveling disguise ruse which made travelers less likely to fall for the trick, they passed a bunch of laws outlawing piracy and allowing for severe punishments of such pirates, and they hunted down all sorts of suspected Thugs, even those who had fled to neighboring countries.
- Hundreds of suspected Thugs were captured, they confessed to thousands of murders, and they were hanged or exiled or sent to prison camps. Eventually, Thuggee was stamped out.
William Henry Sleeman, British civil servant who was put in charge of the "Thuggee Department" in India, which was responsible for the capture and execution of hundreds of suspected Thugs.
(Photo from Wikipedia)
The Revised Story
- In the past ten years or so, a few historians have revisited the stories about Thuggee. Hey, they noticed, most of the stories we've heard about Thugs were told by the British.
- The British had that whole racist thing going on, where they thought that since they were white people they were a whole lot better morally than any dark-skinned people, and it was their job to bring civilization and order to a country full of wild, ignorant, unruly dark people.
- So, naturally, the historians said, the stories the British would tell about a group like this would be wildly exaggerated. They'd be like stories about the boogeymen. The stories kept the white women afraid and therefore dependent on their men to save them, gave the British license to use whatever means necessary to subjugate this "other" group, and in general fueled their whole white power agenda.
- The historians took another look at some of the evidence and said, yup, exaggerations all over the place. Those confessions that the soldiers got out of suspected Thugs surely were coerced, those confessions can't be trusted, they'd likely have been as wildly exaggerated as the British imagination.
- Yes, these recent historians said, there was a group who worshiped Kali, but every Hindi worships Kali to some degree or another. Yes, there was a band of robbers, and yes they did target travelers who were mainly white, but that's because it was easier to steal from them.
- There might have been a few murders that happened in the course of those robberies, but the numbers of people killed weren't anywhere near what those myths say. The reality is far less dramatic and lurid than the stories say.
Revising the Revised Story
- Well, sure enough, there was a backlash among other historians against this new theory.
- Wait a minute, they said. You're saying Thuggee wasn't really around for that long? We beg to differ. Remember that one British guy who pretty much hunted Thugs? Remember how those Thug informants showed him all those graves? What about that?
A Thug from the early 1800s named Behram. He's generally considered to have killed more people than anyone else in history. Accounts vary, however, as to how many people he personally killed, and since he informed on fellow Thugs, he was never tried.
(Photo from blindloop.com, which no longer works)
- All, right, this second batch of historians said, we'll grant you that the truth maybe wasn't as gothic as it's been told in the past. They might not have killed 2 million people, but they did kill quite a few people.
- We think, they went on, the motivation for the robberies wasn't all that religious stuff. They were really doing it because they were poor and they needed the money. People thought they were weirdly religious, but they were just superstitious.
My Take on This
- That's where the historiography of Thugs stands today. Because of all these different versions of the story about Thugs, I'm not sure which one is accurate. I have no way to know, so I gave you all of them.
- I do find it interesting that a story about "deceivers" is so mixed-up and told in so many different ways, it's pretty much impossible to know what the truth is.
- I also find it interesting that this story is associated with Kali. She isn't just the goddess of darkness, she's the goddess of all kinds of things. Literally.
A fairly typical depiction of Kali, with her necklace of heads, her multiple arms, her tongue out, and standing on Shiva.
(Image from Carrie & Danielle)
- Kali is beyond the masks of the worldly. Under her influence, the illusions of this world are sloughed off and the truth emerges. She wears a necklace of fifty heads, each one marked with a letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, thus symbolizing infinite knowledge. That's knowledge of all things, dark and light. The heads are symbolic of the ego, the body. She is the liberator of the ego, allowing us to move into a formless place of all knowledge. Her name literally means "time." She rules the past, present, and future. Without her, the cycle of death and rebirth could not happen.
- So while she may be known as the goddess of destruction, what she's destroying are earthly things that keep us chained. She's scary-powerful, but she's not "bad" in the same way that life is not "bad."
- Just as Kali is far more complicated and complete than the epithet "goddess of destruction" would suggest, so the story about Thugs is far more complicated and many-headed than a one-line dictionary definition might suggest.
- But wait, there's more.
- In 1992, rapper Tupac (or should I write 2Pac? I'm not sure) Shakur got two infamously rival gangs, the Bloods and the Crips to agree to what he called the Code of Thug Life.
- The Code lists 26 rules for things you should and should not do.
- Membership in the gangs means, first and foremost, that while you will get rich, you will also go to jail, and you will die.
- More specifically, membership means there will be crime, of course (mainly drug dealing), but violence is not to be committed in places where innocent people could get hurt.
- Several groups of people are not to be harmed: pregnant women, children, old people, and "civilians," meaning people not in gangs or the police. Shooting at parties and schools is strictly forbidden.
- [Edit: I since learned that this rule may come from Tupac's personal experience. At a party in Marin City in the summer of 1992, during a fight between Tupac and some of his long-time enemies, a six year-old girl was shot and killed. I'm not sure if he devised his Code before or after that incident.]
- Following this code will help you succeed financially, will protect you and your brothers as much as possible, and will help you stay righteous.
Drawing of a famous photo of 2Pac's Thug Life tattoo.
(Image from Nigelicious at Kaneva)
- I don't know if 2Pac knew about the original Thugs or not. Maybe he did. He read a lot. But there sure are a lot of similarities with those Thugs in India.
- The inevitability of death is taken as a given, to be accepted up front.
- Thievery is acceptable. Murder against certain people in certain circumstances is acceptable.
- But said crime is acceptable only in certain locations, or against certain people.
- In fact, certain types of people are explicitly not to be harmed.
- There isn't a religion involved, but there is a code of behavior that's meant to keep people connected.
- What's more, the idea of 2Pac's Thug Life morphed over time, just as the stories about the Thugs have.
- After 2Pac released his enormously popular album called Thug Life, which he made with a group of his friends that he called Thug Life, the sense of being a Thug changed. It expanded from being someone who was a member of either one of those gangs to include anyone who had a rough start in life.
- "Thug" now more or less means that you started from nothing, you lived and worked through having nothing, and you rose above it but without forgetting where you came from.
- Outside the realm of rap culture, the word thug means "ruffian, hoodlum." No stories of goddesses or British soldiers or murdered rap stars, just your basic criminal.
So, is a thug a robber and a murderer? Or just a robber? Is "thug" an epithet people fling out of fear, or is it an epithet to be adopted with pride? Is a thug a run-of-the-mill criminal, or someone crafty and clever, taking care of people to the benefit of some and the detriment of others? Does the answer depend on who's asking? Is a thug, like Kali, something more complicated than "all-bad?"
The Oxford English Dictionary, Thug, Thuggee
Online Etymology Dictionary, thug
The Free Dictionary, thug
Sue Mahan, Pamala L. Griset, Terrorism in Perspective, 2002. Thugs, pp 49-52.
Anomalies-Unlimited, Charming Art from India
John Walsh, Kali's Killers: The Truth about the Thugs, SE Asian History, December 20, 2007
Subhamoy Das, About.com, Kali: The Dark Mother
Devi Press, Kali Goddess
BBC History, The British Presence in India in the 18th Century
ThugLifeArmy, Code of THUG LIFE
Urban Dictionary, Thug Life, Thug