Thugs (thŭgz) [key], former Indian religious sect of murderers and robbers, also called Phansigars [stranglers]. Membership was primarily hereditary and included both Hindus and Muslims, but all were devotees of the Hindu goddess Kali and committed their murders as sacrifices to her. A pickax (representing the tooth of Kali, which she was said to have bestowed upon the organization) was consecrated after the victim's grave had been dug with it. For most of the year Thugs followed ordinary occupations, but in the autumn they went about in bands, disguised as merchants or religious mendicants. When they encountered wealthy travelers, they would ingratiate themselves and await an opportunity to kill. The murder was effected by strangling the victim with a scarf reserved for the purpose. Women and members of certain low castes, such as sweepers, washermen, and musicians, were usually exempted from attack. The Thugs, whose activities are known as far back as the 13th cent., were protected by their strong organization and by local officials with whom they would divide the spoils. Early in the period of British rule in India the decision was made to destroy the Thugs. Sir William Sleeman accomplished the repression (1829–48) by mass arrests and executions.
See G. L. Bruce, The Stranglers (1969).
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