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  • A-Z of Thuggery November 6, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing has been letting his dark side take charge this Saturday evening, while Mrs B. gets ready for mass, reviewing some of the fascinating Victorian literature on the thugs. The thugs, for the uninitiated, were, of course, the Indian sect whose members, in secret, and often without knowledge of their families, murdered travellers. They would pass through the country attaching themselves to parties of wayfarers and then they would kill at the most opportune moment, typically by strangling those they met on the road, disposing of their bodies so that they would never be found.

    Beachcombing has used the word ‘sect’ because it is alleged that the thugs were religiously motivated and that their killings were sacrifices, though especially in modern times their motives have been questioned. Was this a bizarre form of piety or traditional criminal nastiness?

    Either way – and the debate will rage on – here is a nineteenth-century vocabulary list that is as good an introduction as any to the ghastly yet strangely beguiling world of the thugs. A world where a clean, bloodless kill was a matter of pride and where there were precise words for the screams of a murder victim and the roomal or throttling handkerchief.

    Aulae, or Bora, signified a Thug; Beetoo, or Kuj, everybody not a Thug; Bagh, Phool, a rendezvous; Boj’ha, the Thug who carried the bodies to the grave; Bhukote, or Bhurtote, the strangler; Beyl, site for murder; Bykureea, the scout of river Thugs; Beyl’ha, one who chose the place of murder; Bunij, literally merchandize technically a traveller; Bunij Ladhna, to load goods, i.e., to murder; Bhara and Ghurt’ha, dead bodies of victims; Bisul purna, to be awkwardly handled to have the roomal caught on the face or head, instead of being slipped round the neck the contrary of soosul purna: a Thug who was frequently guilty of bungling in this manner, was deposed from the honourable post of strangler; Chookadena, or Thibaedena, to get travellers to sit down and look up, by pointing out some star or object in the air, so that, the chin being raised, the handkerchief might be more easily passed round the throat; Chumoseea, or Shumsheea, the Thug whose duty it was to seize the victim’s hands; Chumeea, the Thug who held down the struggling victim; Chandoo, an expert Thug; Cheesa, a blessing from heaven, a rich traveller; Dhonkee, or Ronkee, a policeman or guard; Dul, weight; Duller, the head; Doonr, the shrieks of a victim; Jywaloo, left for dead, but afterwards recovering, which occasionally happened when there was not time to bury the bodies, or when it was judged imprudent to stab and slash them after being strangled; Kuboola, a tyro the opposite of Borka, an adept… Koojaoo, an informer, or one who extorted hush-money from Thugs; Khullee, a Thug who, from ignoble care-giving impecuniosity, concealed himself on his return home to avoid his creditors for the natives of Hindostan enjoy many of the blessings of an ancient and refined civilization; Khomusna, to rush in upon travellers when there was not sufficient time for the ordinary preparations; Kanthuna, or Kanth dalna, to stab when no opportunity was afforded for strangling a very exceptional case or to slash the suffocated victim, either to prevent revival, or the swelling of the body when buried, owing to the evolved gases finding no vent for escape. This gaseous inflation of the corpse was apt to cause the imposed earth to crack and open, when the horrid effluvia attracted jackals to the spot, who, by digging up the bodies, might discover the fact of a murder having been committed, and so lead to the detection of the murderers; Kathee kurna, to inveigle travellers, or to consult secretly as to the mode of doing away with them; Kharoo, a gang of Thugs; Kkuruk, the sound of the consecrated pick-axe in making a grave, supposed to be audible only to the initiated; Kurwa, a square, or oblong grave, for one corpse or for many; Gobba, a circular grave, with a small pillar of earth left in the middle it was believed to crack less than the ordinary grave, and was therefore preferred when the dead bodies were very numerous; Kuthowa, the Thug whose office it was to cut and stab the dead bodies; Lugha, the grave-digger; Lutfameea, a very small purse, used exclusively by Thugs and professional thieves; Maulee, or Phoola, the Thug entrusted with the duty of taking to the village the money sent by the absent gang for the maintenance of their wives and families; Nawureea, a novice on his first expedition sometimes they were compelled to kick the first murdered man five times on the back; Nissar, safe, as applied to any suitable place for lodging at, murdering, or dividing spoil opposed to tikkur, unsafe; Paoo, an accomplice of Thugs; Pehloo, or Sikka, or Roomal, the handkerchief. This was, rather, a turban unfolded, or the long narrow cloth, or sash, worn round the waist. It was doubled to the length of about thirty inches, with a knot formed at the doubled extremity, and about eighteen inches from that a slip knot. The distance between these two knots was regulated by preparing the fatal instrument on the knee, which was made to do temporary duty for a neck. The use of the two knots was to give a firm hold. When the victim was fairly prostrated, the strangler adroitly loosened the slip knot, and made another fold of the cloth round his throat. Then placing his foot upon the back of his victim’s neck, he drew the cloth tightly, as if to use the informant’s own words he were ‘packing a bundle of straw’. Pehloo dena, to instal as a strangler, of which more hereafter; Phank, a. useless thing, a traveller without property; Pungoo, or Bungoo, a river Thug of Bengal, who murdered on board his kuntee or boat; Phur, same as Beyl, also a spot for dividing the plunder; Phurjhana, to clean the murder-spot after a nocturnal murder, some of the gang were generally left behind to remove any signs of the crime that might be visible by daylight; Phuruck dena, to wave a cloth as signal of danger; Pusur, the direction of an expedition; Euhna, a temporary grave; Soon, a Thug by birth, but not yet initiated; Saur, one who escaped from Thugs; Sotha, the inveigler; Tome, an article of extraordinary value; Tilha, a spy; Thap, a night encampment; Tuppul, a bye-path into which they often inveigled their unsuspecting travelling companions, as more convenient for their purposes. A rich traveller was called ‘a delicacy’; a poor one ‘a stick’; an old man ‘a barber’s drum’. Some of their signals, too, were quaint. The necessity of caution was inculcated by drawing the back of the hand along the chin, from the throat outwards; the open hand placed over the mouth and drawn gently downwards, implied the absence of danger. ‘Sweep the place’, signified to look out; ‘bring firewood’, take your places that is, the place assigned to each Thug preparatory to action; ‘take out the handkerchief with the Beetel’, get the roomal ready, as already described; ‘eat beetel’, or ‘hand the beetel’, despatch him this was called the Jhirnee, or signal to fall on; ‘look after the straw’, get the body ready for burial; ‘the straw is come out’, jackals have dug up the body. Another form of the Jhirnee was ‘Ae ho to ghyree chulo’, ‘if you are come, pray descend’. ‘When the scouts wished to report that all was safe, they called out as if to a comrade, ‘Bajeed Khan’, or ‘Deo’, or ‘Deoseyn’. If the scouts saw any danger at hand, or a traveller coming along, they would call out ‘Sheikh Jee’, or ‘Sheikh Mahommed’, if they were Mussulmauns; and ‘Luchmun Sing’, or ‘Lucbee Ram’, or ‘Gunga Ram’, if they were Hindoos. Sometimes the advanced guard of a gang, with victims in their power, would meet with a party of travellers, of whom they considered their friends in the rear were capable of disposing. In which case they sent some one back to tell Bajeed Khan, or Deoseyn, to make haste and overtake them. The others receiving this message understood that the coast was clear in front, and on meeting the travellers, lost no time in putting them to death. If a gang happened from any cause to get separated, they rallied with the cry, Bukh, Bukh, Bukh, ‘come, come, come’. When the leader judged that the time was at hand for selecting a beyl, or site for murder, he would say to the Thug on whom that duty devolved, ‘Jao, kutoree manj Jao’, ‘go and clean the brass cup’. When he desired every one to repair to his post, he gave the khokee, that is, he made a great noise of hawking up phlegm from his throat; if anything then occurred to cause the suspension of operations, he gave the thokee, or spit out the phlegm. Otherwise, he exclaimed aloud ‘Surbulund Khan’, or ‘Dulur Khan’, or ‘Surmnst Khan’, whereupon the stranglers made ready and only awaited the jhirnee. Then the fatal words were pronounced, Tombako kha lo, or pee lo, ‘eat’, or ‘drink’ (i.e., smoke) your tobacco’ or one of the other formulae was used and the next instant the roomal was round the throat of the ill-fated wretch.

    All afternoon, Beachcombing has been imagining a short story where a group of Muslim thugs accidentally attaches themselves to a travelling party of Hindu thugs with tragicomic consequences. Let’s hope sometime, somewhere, it happened.

    Any other crime vocabularies? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    8 Nov 2011: Radko sends in Mark Twain’s Following the Equator that has some typical Twainisms on the subject of the Thugs. We quote one paragraph. ‘Here is the tally-sheet of a gang of sixty Thugs for a whole season–gang under two noted chiefs, ‘Chotee and Sheik Nungoo from Gwalior’: Left Poora, in Jhansee, and on arrival at Sarora murdered a traveler. On nearly reaching Bhopal, met 3 Brahmins, and murdered them. Cross the Nerbudda; at a village called Hutteea, murdered a Hindoo. Went through Aurungabad to Walagow; there met a Havildar of the barber caste and 5 sepoys (native soldiers); in the evening came to Jokur, and in the morning killed them near the place where the treasure-bearers were killed the year before. Between Jokur and Dholeea met a sepoy of the shepherd caste; killed him in the jungle. Passed through Dholeea and lodged in a village; two miles beyond, on the road to Indore, met a Byragee (beggar-holy mendicant); murdered him at the Thapa. In the morning, beyond the Thapa, fell in with 3 Marwarie travelers; murdered them. Near a village on the banks of the Taptee met 4 travelers and killed them. Between Choupra and Dhoreea met a Marwarie; murdered him. At Dhoreea met 3 Marwaries; took them two miles and murdered them. Two miles further on, overtaken by three treasure-bearers; took them two miles and murdered them in the jungle. Came on to Khurgore Bateesa in Indore, divided spoil, and dispersed. A total of 27 men murdered on one expedition.’ Twain then rights. Chotee (to save his neck) was informer, and furnished these facts. Several things are noticeable about his resume. 1. Business brevity; 2, absence of emotion; 3, smallness of the parties encountered by the 60; 4, variety in character and quality of the game captured; 5, Hindoo and Mohammedan chiefs in business together for Bhowanee; 6, the sacred caste of the Brahmins not respected by either; 7, nor yet the character of that mendicant, that Byragee.‘ Well worth the read. thanks Radko!