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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 the 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.

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