Stranglers of the Yellow Scarf

The following summarizes some of the research I did as background for Shadow of the Tiger, the second volume in my Adventures in Second Sight series.


“Nine hundred and thirty-one.”

The magistrate, Captain William H. Sleeman of the Political Service of the Honorable East India Company, or John Company as its employees called it, was silent as his comprehension was momentarily stifled. As the gentle swish of the punkah overhead stirred the stifling air of the small court room, Sleeman asked incredulously, “Nine hundred and thirty-one murders! Surely, you can never have been guilty of such a number?”

The small dark man, Buhram, standing in the court room was unremarkable in appearance, would be unnoticeable in a crowd. He answered in a quiet voice tinged with pride, “Sahib, there were many more, but I was so intrigued in luring them to destruction that I ceased counting when certain of my thousand victims.[i]

Buhram was a Thug[ii] who had become an approver, to turn King’s evidence, to escape execution. He had been raised from birth to be a loyal worshipper of the four-armed red-lipped and red-tongued black goddess, Kali, who in the belief of the Thuggee, demanded bloodless murders as sacrifice from her devotees — and she was never satisfied. Her right hands are extended in forgiveness while her two left hold a severed head and a bloody sword.

Buhram had averaged over two murders a month — for forty years. But he was not the only Thug of note to become an approver and stand before Sleeman. There was also Ramzam with his 604 murders and Futty Khan with 508 in only twenty-one years which rivaled Buhram himself.

A Thug was a garrotter by hereditary profession who sincerely believed he had a divine obligation to kill. And even with the enmity that normally existed between Hindu and Muslim, within Thuggee, those differences were set aside, with Muslims accepting Kali as the controlling deity and the Hindu accepting actions prohibited by their religion. And it was the killing, never the booty that was the primary motivating factor.


The practice of Thuggee in India stretched back certainly three hundred years; possibly even to six hundred years. The legendary origin of Thuggee begins with Kali, the daughter of stone. The consort of Shiva, the goddess first appeared on earth on the banks of the Hooghli River at a spot called, in honor of that defining event, Kali Ghat, which later became Calcutta, and now is Kolkata,. The principal temple for worship of Kali is at Kalighat in Kolkata. Generally, Kali is depicted as fair and beautiful when with her husband, Shiva; but when alone, the goddess is all black and lethally hideous.

The chronicle continued that at one time a monstrous demon was devouring mankind as quickly as it could create. Kali cut the demon in two with her enchanted sword, but from each drop of blood a new demon would emerge. Killing the hellish unending brood tired her. From Kali’s sweat as she rested, she created two men to whom she gave a ruhmal, a scarf, and commanded them to strangle the demons so that no blood could be spilled in their killing. Their work finally done, the two men tried to return their ruhmals, but Kali ordered them to keep the scarves and to use them to destroy all men who were not of their kindred.

As yellow and white were the favorite colors of Kali, so the ruhmals were also of those colors. To bury their victims, Kali presented the men with one of her teeth to be used as a sacred pickaxe and a rib for a knife, ordering them to cut and bury the bodies of those whom they destroyed.

The procedure outlined in the myth became the standard plan of action of the roving Thug gangs:

The Beles would go ahead of the main body of Thug travelers to choose the killing place, usually a grove at a crossroads. There they would dig the graves with their Kussee, the consecrated pickaxes[iii], in anticipation of the action later in the night.

The Sothas, the Deceivers, would inveigle the innocent travelers until the travelers included the Thugs in their own party for protection against roving bands of dacoits, or armed bandits. Seeing the signs left by the Beles, the Sothas would direct the party to stop for the night in the chosen grove.

Following, the Bhurtotes, the stranglers, would casually join the group of travelers at the grove with their yellow ruhmals in their belt, ready at hand. With the Bhurtotes were the Camrochees, whose duty, on the signal of the leader, was to seize the feet and legs of the victim as the Bhurtote whipped the ruhmal about the neck. With the Camrochee holding down the body, the Bhurtote gained more leverage to quickly snap the neck of the victim.

Finally, the Lugha would bend the knees of the victims while stabbing the bodies several times to ensure that the gases generated by body decay could not swell the corpse and disturb the earth, thus giving the burial site away.

Everything awaited the death call from the Jhirni, the leader.  Often the Jhirni would encourage everyone to sing about the campfire, to throw back their heads to sing out the songs of their homes. With the travelers’ heads back, the Jhirni would give the signal, “Tamakhu Kha-lo!” (Smoke tobacco!). The Bhurtotes would strike to their right with their ruhmal, the Camrochees would simultaneously seize the feet of the victims and the deed would be done.

The gang would then rifle the bodies for everything of value, then strip their luggage.  The Lugha would swiftly bend, stab and bury the bodies. Within a half hour, no evidence that the group of travelers had existed would remain.

The gang might be ten, twenty or fifty, with each man taking a specific role of disguise — as a simple laborer up to that of a court official traveling with his retinue. The roads of India were long, dusty and dangerous so that travelers would often band together for mutual protection, particularly around a rich man with armed servants.

The Thugs might travel with a targeted group for two or three days before the death call was given. And that came only if the omens that day were positive, which confirmed that Kali herself had ordered the killing. To kill against the will of the goddess was to invite disaster.

At the first convenient place after every ritual mass murder, the sacrifice of Tupounee was celebrated with the sacrifice of goor, raw yellow sugar, to Kali.

In Sleeman’s interrogation in 1835 of a principal leader of Thugs, Feringheea, he asked the killer if there was any regret or pity after taking an innocent life.

Feringheea responded with intensity, “We all feel pity sometimes, but the goor of the Tupounee changes our nature. It would change the nature of a horse. Let any man once taste of that goor, and he will be a Thug, though he knows all the trades and have all the wealth of the world.”

Whoever tasted of Kali’s sugar would become Kali’s man.

William H. Sleeman

The existence of the cult in India was first tentatively identified by the British in 1799. In 1810, a general order was issued to the Bengal Army warning of Thugs.

The first detailed description of the Thugs in the North and the Phansigars[iv] in Southern India was written in 1816 by Dr. Richard C. Sherwood, Surgeon at Fort St. George in Madras.

Three years later, Captain William H. Sleeman discovered a copy of Sherwood’s manuscript and realized that the bizarre organization of hereditary garrotters described might account for the strange disappearances of a number of travelers reported to him.

In December, 1821, Captain Sleeman left his regiment of the Bengal Army to join the Political Service of John Company at Jubbulpore. He arrived fluent in Arabic, Persian, Pushtu, Urdu and Gurkhali, an accomplishment not matched by one in ten of the Company’s officers. While at Jubbulpore, Sleeman learned that many of the Company’s senior administrators held the opinion that, as loathsome as the Thug atrocities were, no sustained and widespread campaign against Thuggee should be waged because the odious profession was based on religion and to crush it might “injure religious susceptibilities”. And, as no European had been attacked by the Thugs, there was no immediate threat to British interests.

Sleeman’s intense interest in the Thugs quickly earned him the nickname in the Political Service of Thuggee Sleeman, a nickname he would carry to his grave.

One further impediment to admitting the presence of Thuggee was the public perception of India that John Company had so assiduously developed in England and in Parliament; that of an India of satisfied natives enjoying the largess and wise instruction of Her Majesty’s servants in the Company — when actually nothing could be further from the truth of the time.

Though the growing British presence in India had eliminated some local corruption and improved the efficiency of commerce, the British hand was oppressive to most Indians who rarely saw anything other than the red clad military authority. To admit the existence of a hereditary brotherhood of assassins operating throughout all of India, a brotherhood that had not been curbed in three centuries and was still functioning under Company rule would have given the lie to the Company story of successful cooperation between the Company and the Indian people.

But as the British presence continued to spread in India, Thuggee became increasingly a direct challenge to the authority of the East India Company. The officer finally chosen to suppress Thuggee was Captain William Sleeman who had, in the interim, added Ramasee, the secret dialect of the Thugs, to his many abilities.

Sleeman, with a small group of men, began to correlate reports of disappearances. He succeeded in getting the district commanders to share information with each other and with him; where in the past, unless a crime was committed within his own district, the district commander took no note.

Providing protection for approvers at Jubbulpore gave Sleeman the opportunity to interrogate Thugs as they were captured. From the information from his relentless questioning, he assembled a map of 274 favored Thuggee murder sites and excavated each one — finding not only barely decomposed corpses of recent victims but skeletons of victims of years past if not decades. All were in the same pose, their knees pressed tightly against their chest, deep stab wounds in those remains with flesh still attached.

The most murderous site in India was at the groves of Mundesur. Sleeman was stunned to learn that while he had earlier been magistrate in that district in 1822-4, the groves had been the frequent rendezvous for Thugs only a few hundred yards from his own court. Sleeman discovered over a hundred decomposed bodies at Mundesur. By 1831, with the use of approvers and informants, Sleeman had arrested, convicted and hanged a growing number of Thugs.

By 1835, Sleeman had been made General Superintendant for the Suppression of Thuggee. By 1840, Sleeman, operating with a much larger group, had sent 3,689 Thugs to trial of which 406 were hanged, 1,564 were transported for life, 933 imprisoned for life, with the rest receiving various other sentences. Only twelve escaped from capture.

His knowledge of the Indian countryside beyond challenge and his military reputation solid, Sleeman turned to what proved to be his final challenge. With all the energy he could summon, Sleeman argued against the continued expansion of the British presence in India, and to particularly avoid the annexation of the Kingdom of Oudh which Sleeman considered potentially disastrous. Though his health continued to worsen, Sleeman was promoted to full colonel in 1853 and to major-general in 1854.

William Sleeman collapsed at his desk in 1854. After a brief period of convalescence, he and his wife began the long journey to retirement in England after a career of forty-six years in India. In 1856, as he boarded the ship, Monarch, for London, Sleeman received word that Queen Victoria had made him a Knight Commander of the Bath. While at sea, he also learned that the Company had annexed Oudh.

Thuggee Sleeman died enroute, May 12, 1856, without ever seeing England again. But also he was spared seeing the Indian Mutiny of 1857 that he had warned the Company was looming on the horizon.

Thuggee still survives in India, but not the killings. When the Indiana Jones movie, The Temple of Doom, appeared in India in 1984, the Thuggee objected to the racist and distorted portrayal of their religion with the result that Temple of Doom was banned from India.

The End

Suggested Reading:

Dash, Mike, Thug: The True Story of India’s Murderous Cult, Ghanta Books, 2005, London.

Masters, John, The Deceivers, Michael Joseph, 1956, New York. A novel of the Thuggee. Filmed by Merchant/Ivory in India and released under the same title in 1988 starring Pierce Brosnan.  Masters (1914-1983) was an officer in the Indian Army from 1934 to his retirement in 1948. Masters was born in Calcutta.

Lawson, Philip, The East India Company: a history, Longman Group, 1993, London.

Sleeman, Col. James L., Thug, or a Million Murders, Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1933, London.

[i] All quotations are taken directly from interrogation transcripts or court records contained in W. H. Sleeman, Ramaseeana: The Vocabulary of the Thugs, G. H. Hutman, Calcutta, 1836.

[ii] The word thug means deceiver, from the Hindi verb thugna, which means to deceive. Thug is correctly pronounced Toog, slightly aspirated. From Col. Meadows Taylor, Confessions of a Thug, Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., London, 1839.

[iii]To a Thug an oath taken on a Kussee was more sacred than one on the waters of the Ganges or the Koran. Violating the Kussee oath meant death within six days and calamity to their families.

[iv] Phansigars, whose religious beliefs paralleled those of the Thugs, used a dhouti, a noose, to kill rather than the ruhmal, the yellow scarf of the Thugs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>