Skip to main content

Thug-Feringhea and Kali-Fatima

And I thought I would never see them all covered. But here she is all dressed up and ready to kill.

The Goddess Kāli
-  found it in 'The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India' by R.V. Russell,  Vol. IV. 1916. [ at Project Gutenberg]. The accompanying passage dealing with infamous 'Thugs of India and Kali Worship' and offered an interesting 'India: A Religious Assimilation Story':
Kāli or Bhawāni was the principal deity of the Thugs, as of most of the criminal and lower castes; and those who were Muhammadans got over the difficulty of her being a Hindu goddess by pretending that Fātima, the daughter of the Prophet, was an incarnation of her. In former times they held that the goddess was accustomed to relieve them of the trouble of destroying the dead bodies by devouring them herself; but in order that they might not see her doing this she had strictly enjoined on them never to look back on leaving the site of a murder. On one occasion a novice of the fraternity disobeyed this rule and, unguardedly looking behind him, saw the goddess in the act of feasting upon a body with the half of it hanging out of her mouth. Upon this she declared that she would no longer devour those whom the Thugs slaughtered; but she agreed to present them with one of her teeth for a pickaxe, a rib for a knife and the hem of her lower garment for a noose, and ordered them for the future to cut about and bury the bodies of those whom they destroyed. As there seems reason to suppose that the goddess Kāli represents the deified tiger, on which she rides, she was eminently appropriate as the patroness of the Thugs and in the capacity of the devourer of corpses.
Bahrūpia impersonating the goddess Kāli (found in Vol. I of the book )

'Fātima, the daughter of the Prophet, as an incarnation of Kali' - that certainly caught my attention.

A couple of book searches later, I came a across an interesting conversation in book called 'Historic Incidents And Life in India' by Caleb Wright, J. A. Brainerd (1867) [Google Books].

A certain (later Colonel Sir) Captain William Sleeman, Agent of British East India Company for the Suppression of Thuggee, had this talk with some Mohammedan Thugs:

Capt. S. Has Bhowanee been any where named in the Koran?

Sahib. Nowhere.

" Here," (says Capt. Sleeman,) "a Mussulman Thug interposed, and said he thought Bhowanee, and Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed, were one and the same person; and that it was Fatima who invented the use of the roomal, to strangle the great demon Rukut- beejdana. This led to a discussion between him and some of my Mussulman native officers, who did not like to find the amiable Fatima made a goddess of Thuggee."

Capt. S.  Then has Bhowanee any thing to do with your Paradise ?

Sahib. Nothing.

Capt. S. She has no influence upon your future state?

Sahib. None.

Capt. S. Does Mohammed, your prophet, any where sanction crimes like yours; — the murder in cold blood of your fellow-creatures, for the sake of their money ?

Sahib. No.

Capt. S. Does he not say that such crimes will be punished by God in the next world ?

Sahib. Yes.

Capt. S. Then do you never feel any dread of punishment hereafter ?

Sahib. Never. We never murder unless the omens are favorable ; and we consider favorable omens as the mandates of the deity.

Capt. S. What deity ?

Sahib. Bhowanee.

Capt. S. But Bhowanee, you say, has no influence upon the welfare, or otherwise, of your soul hereafter.

Sahib. None, we believe; but she influences our fates in this world; and what she orders, in this world, we believe that God will not punish in the next.
Cornish-born William Henry Sleeman  was the magistrate in the district of Nursingpur in Central India from 1822-24. In 1828,  William Sleeman became of of the first persons to find a found dinosaur fossils in India when he dug up some at  Bara Simla Hills Jabalpur cantonment, Madhya Pradesh. He was one of the first British officer to enforce a ban on Sati pratha, in 1828, and that too without a warrant from the Supreme Government of India which later decreed the Sati practice illegal some month later. But all this did not bring him wide acclaim -  an account of his great achievement being mentioned by Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain for most) in his travel book 'More Tramps Abroad' (1880), inspiration for a character named  William Savage of Merchant Ivory film The Deceivers based on the novel of name written in 1952 by John Masters, a mention in 1984 novel adaptation of  film 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' in which the great Indiana Jones admires this man's 'courage', a village named Sleemanabad after him still exists in Madhya Pradesh. Acclaim came because he was the man who effectively put an end to the menace of Thugs, which in turn is an interesting story*:

Thug:  Whoever, at any time after the passing of this Act, shall have been habitually associated with any other or others for the purpose of committing robbery or child- stealing by means of or accompanied with murder, is a thug. 
- Section 310 in The Indian Penal Code, 1860

As late as 1810, the British had almost no idea about the extend of Thug menace and no major systematic measures were taken against them. But then that same year, some British Indian soldiers failed to return from leave, when an enquiry revealed murder by Thugs, the British woke up to the problems posed by Thugs.

In 1830, a Thagi and Dakaiti Department was set up by Lord Bentink, Governer-General in years 1828-33, with Captain William Sleeman, who in 1920s had discovered pit graves of strangled travellers, as its General Superintendent. It was an effectively run organization given the fact that even at its peak, with operations covering the wide expanse of entire British India and some princely States, it only had 18 officers. The crackdown on Thugs and a study of their secretive cult was initiated.

It's first success, capture of a infamous Thug known as 'Feringhea', 'the Thuggee chief, King of the stranglers'. He got the odd name 'Feringhea', meaning 'Foreigner', because his mother gave him birth in flight from their village as it was being burnt down by British forces.

William Sleeman achieved the almost impossible task by imprisoning the families of  thugs indefinitely.**

Feringhea could not bare to see his family suffer and gave in to Sleeman's pressure tactic. He was sent to Saugor Jail around 300 Kilometers away from Gwalior, a Jail which was to become the final resting place of many other Thugs and his companions. They all were now talking to protect their families.  But Feringhea didn't talk much. Until. Until Feringhea was told about the hanging of Thug Phoolsa's brother Jharhu at Jabalpur Jail. Jharhu was Feringhea's young nephew. Feringhea broke down. As tears rolled down Feringhea's  face, he said to Sleeman, " You ought not to have hung him; He never strangled or assisted in strangling any man!!" ***

Then followed some more shocking confessions (part of the conversation already quoted above) and the nature of their crime. They told stories about 'Evil Ghur', Jaggery that once ingested could make any man a criminal for life; they told stories about three step initiation in the world of Thugs - Going along to watch something interesting with their father, thinking it just a robbery, witnessing the actual murder; they told stories about  how some newly 'initiated' kid couldn't bear the scene and died overnight of shock, they stories of how one of the 'initiated' instead became jogee at some temple, they gruesome murder stories - murder by strangulation of entire group of travellers and murder of their wives and children; they told the story of murder of  a beautiful, rich, young Muslim maiden simply referred as 'Moghulanee' who took a fancy for young Feringhea; they told how Feringhea assisted in her murder; he claimed he didn't witness the actual act; they told stories of various Hindu and Muslim castes of Thugs and how they worked together; they occasionally did differ with each other on the subject and nature of their religion and caste; the Thugs listed the classes that they never dare target, you were safe if you were a: Dhobie or Washerman, Bhart or Bard, Sikh in Bengal (although there were not many Sikhs thus, but the investigation did throw up the name of one 'shrewd' Sikh Thug named Ram Sing Siek ), Nanuksahee or a follower of Nanak, Mudaree Fukeer , Dancing man or a boy, Musician by profession, Bhungie or sweeper, Teylie or oil vendor, Lohar (blacksmith) traveling together with with a Burha (carpenter) or Burha traveling with Lohar but no chance if you are just a Burha or Lohar traveling with fellow class people, Maimed and leprous person, a man with a cow, Brahmachari or Celibate, Kawruttie (present day Kanwaria) or Ganges water carrier, but only if your pot is not empty of Ganga water; and each one of the Thug, irrespective or their caste or religion, told them about the goddess that guided and drove them on remorselessly. Some of them did show something resembling remorse for killing women, all of them were convinced that they were in trouble with British (and the goddess) because their generation had ignored the ancient rules of their profession. And Feringhea believed their ruin started with the murder of a Muslim woman named Kalee Bebee during the time of Thug father Purusram. They talked till most of the Thugs were captured or hanged.

Their confessions lead to operations.

In five years since inception, the Department led to the conviction of over 3,000 Thugs. By 1837, some 483 Thugs had become government informers. Fearful of retribution from their former partners in crime, a special jail was built for these informers at Jabalpur in the Central Provinces.

By the end of 1863, the Thagi and Dakaiti Department had almost completely (but for some princely states) extirpated the Thugs from British India. It was later proved that around 40-50 gangs of Thugs had been at work murdering about 20-30000 people a year. One Thug even admitted to have been 'directly concerned in the murder of seven hundred and nineteen person' and claimed he would have killed more had he not been in jail for twelve years. 

Their confessions lead to books.

British in India began to suspect that they were all surrounded by thugs in India. After all Feringhea once did serve as a Jamdaar to one Sir David Ochterlony of British Army for many years. It set tongues wagging and men scurrying for pen. When the 'Thug conversations' reached British shore, the nature of  'confessions' sent shock waves of  revulsion and guilty thrill through the heart of Victorian England.

In 1839, came 'Confessions of a Thug', by Captain Philip Meadows Taylor, the first best-selling Anglo-Indian novel that formally introduced the word 'Thug' to English language. It created such a buzz (not unlike the present day Taliban buzz) that young Queen Victoria, who must have badly wanted to read it, got her privileged hands on the proof pages of the first Chapter of the book.

Liverpool born Mr. Taylor, in fact had not been greatly involved with the Thagi and Dakaiti Department and had spent most of his 'India Time' at Hyderabad in service of Nizam, but he had heard the Thug stories that were doing the round at the time and must have noticed how it thrilled the British. Once back in London, working on the novel, he based the story in Hyderabad, he fictionalized and came up with a thriller. 'Family man' Brahmin Thug Feringhea (he claimed to be a Brahmin) became cruel, lustful Muslim Thug Ameer Ali.

In the years that followed Feringhea, or parts of him, kept getting re-born in every literary Thug ever created. He was there as Farighea in Eugene Sue's Le Juif Errant ( The Wandering Jew, 1844), poisoning Indian prince Djalm, a suspected Thug (in the novel Thugs were christened  “Etrangleurs”) who thought of him as a friend. In Jules Verne's 'Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours' (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873.) dreaded Feringhea was "le chef Thugs, le rois des Etrangleurs," 'the Thuggee chief, King of the stranglers'.

Even as the world of thugs crumpled and vanished, Feringhea continued with his 'adventures' - killing unsuspecting travelers, setting up intrigues, ravaging white women, in the end getting killed by mighty law - all in the literal world, and in the process satisfying the eager curiosity of western world, a curiosity that may well have been driven by the gory image of that strange, fierce, destructive, blood drinking, dead devouring goddess - Kali. 

Again remembered at the time of Indian Partition.
TIME Magazine cover October 27 1947

Contemporary popular image of Kali

Popular face of thug in West.
Heart Clincher Head Thug Molaram played by Amrish Puri in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' (1984)


*  Rewording the story as told in 'Intelligence and Imperial Defence: British Intelligence and the Defence of Indian Empire (1904-1924)' by Richard James Popplewell (1995), Mark Twain's 'More Tramps Abroad' (1880) and an aricle ''Imperial deceivers' by Kevin Rushby [Guardian link] writer of the book 'Children of Kali'.

**According to the 'scientific' reasoning of the time, 'Son of a thief was a thief, it's a hereditary thing'. British came up with Criminal Tribes Act,1871 and entire families belonging to 'criminal castes' and 'hijras' ( often accused of stealing and castrating children) were at time sent to prison. Some of these 'criminal caste' people, living a poor roving life in India, moving from city to city, are still seen as suspects in India every time there is a 'Kacha Banyan Gang' type incident ('Underwear-Undershirt' gang of robbers/burglars notorious for their 'Killer Streak').

*** from - "The Thugs or Phansigars of India: Comprising a History of the Rise and Progress of that Extraordinary Fraternity of Assassins And a description if the system which it pursues, and of the measures which have been adopted by the Supreme Government of India for its Suppression. Compiled from original and Authentic Documents, published by Captain W.H. Sleeman, Superintendent of Thug Police. (1839)" [Google Books Link]. The chapter about Feringhea is titled "Adventures of Feringhea".


Popular posts from this blog

Famous Old Faces of Doordarshan

Some people recall the faces and some people recall the names. Here are images of some of the famous readers and presenters of Doordarshan down the years. If you recognize any of them, leave a comment. [ Update 1 : Most of the faces now have names thanks to helpful comments by olio-gallimaufry ] [ Update 2 : Included image of one of the earliest presenters, Gopal Kaul. Send in generously from personal collection by son, Ashutosh Kaul. Sept, 2010.] [ Major Update 3: Got a tip-off about a documentary about the famous faces of Doordarshan from the makers   of     “The Golden Trail , DD@50 :Special feature on Golden Jubilee of Doordarshan ” from which these caps were taken. I managed to catch the incredible documentary and am adding some more faces/name and part of the docu here. New ones can be found after the image of  Narotam Puri. 30th Oct, 2010]  Pratima Puri. Believed to be the first Doordarshan reader.

Indian Cigarette Vintage Ads

He put a cigarette in his mouth and, as a matter of silent routine, offered one to Gwyn, who said ‘No thanks.”Richard looked at him.”I packed it in.”"You what?”"I stopped. Three days ago. Cold. That’s it. You just make the life choice.” Richard looked up and inhaled needfully. He gazed at his cigarette. He didn’t really want to smoke it. He wanted to eat it. Almost the only thing that he still liked about Gwyn was that he still smoked…Paradoxically, he no longer wanted to give up smoking: what he wanted to do was take up smoking. Not so much to fill the little gaps between cigarettes with cigarettes (there wouldn’t be time, anyway) or to smoke two cigarettes at once. It was more that he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette. The need was and wasn’t being met… While it would always be true and fair to say that Richard felt like a cigarette, it would now be doubly true and fair to say it. He felt like a cigarette. And he felt like a cig

Woman by Arun Kolatkar

a woman may collect cats read thrillers her insomnia may seep through the great walls of history a lizard may paralyze her a sewing machine may bend her moonlight may intercept the bangle circling her wrist a woman my name her cats the circulating library may lend her new thrillers a spiked man may impale her a woman may add a new recipe to her scrapbook judiciously distilling her whimper the city lights may declare it null and void in a prodigious weather above a darkling woman surgeons may shoot up and explode in a weather fraught with forceps woman may damn man a woman may shave her legs regularly a woman may take up landscape painting a woman may poison twenty three cockroaches - a poem by Arun Kolatkar from year 1967. Translated by Adil Jussawalla. Found it in New Writing in India (1974) ed. by Adil Jussawalla.