On a well-worn road through central India, Lieutenant Subhani of the Bengal Native Infantry and his three traveling companions were nearing the final leg of their journey. Ordinarily the Lieutenant would have only his pair of loyal orderlies to keep him company as he traveled, but today a third man walked alongside hishorse—a stranger who had joined him only that morning.
The year was 1812, and the pleasant October weather made for an easy trek. Subhani knew these roads could be dangerous for travelers, especially at this time of year, but he was untroubled. Trained soldiers and well-armed, he and his men were an unlikely target for roving bandits. But a much greater threat loomed over them on that dusty road, closer at hand than the travelers could have possibly conceived.
Accounts of a secret cult of murderers roaming India go back at least as far as the 13th century, but to modern history their story usually begins with the entrance of the British Empire in the early 1800s. For some years, India’s British administrators had been hearing reports of large numbers of travelers disappearing on the country’s roads; but, while disturbing, such incidents were not entirely unusual for the time. It was not until the discovery of a series of eerily similar mass graves across India that the truth began to dawn. Each site was piled with the bodies of individuals ritually murdered and buried in the same meticulous fashion, leading to an inescapable conclusion: these killings were the work of a single, nation-spanning organization. It was known as Thuggee.
At its root, the word "Thuggee" means "deceivers," and this name hints at the methods employed by the cult. Bands of Thugs traveled across the country posing as pilgrims, merchants, soldiers, or even royalty, in groups numbering anywhere from a few men to several hundred. Offering protection or company, they would befriend fellow travelers and slowly build their confidence along the road. Often the impostors would journey for days and hundreds of miles with their intended victims, patiently waiting for an opportunity to strike. When the time was right, typically while their targets were encamped and at their most relaxed, a signal would be given—reportedly “Bring the tobacco”—and the Thugs would spring. Each member had a well-honed specialty; some distracted their quarry, some made noise or music to mask anycries, while others guarded the campsite from intruders and escapees. Thugs of the highest rank performed the actual killings. As a prohibition against shedding blood was at the core of Thuggee belief, the murders were performed in a bloodless fashion. The usual method was strangulation with a rumal, the yellow silk handkerchief each thug wore tied around his waist; but an occasional neck-breaking or poisoning helped to add some variety. It was a matter of honor for the Thugs to let no one escape alive once they had been selected for death.
Lieutenant Subhani and his orderlies had spent the previous night as guests at the home of Ishwardas Moti, a prestigious cotton merchant and local official. There he had been introduced to another of Moti’s guests, the man who was traveling with him now. Moklal was his name—a business associate of Moti’s, he was told, and one he had spoken of most highly.
“Narsinghpur!” Moti had exclaimed upon hearing the Lieutenant's destination, “What a fortunate coincidence! Moklal is traveling that way as well. Perhaps you could go with him for the extra protection?”
Subhani, though reluctant to take on a civilian traveling companion, did not wish to offend his host—and at any rate, Moklal seemed amiable enough. He agreed.
For the members of Thuggee, murder was both a way of life and a religious duty. They believed their killings were a means of worshiping the Hindu goddess Kali, who was honored at each stage of the murder by a vast and complex system of rituals and superstitions. Thugs were guided to their...