Confessions Of A Thug reviews the classic novel which first popularized the Thuggee cult, a darkly psychological adventure story with a murderous anti-hero, Ameer Ali:

Philip Meadows Taylor’s 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug captured the imagination of 19th-century Britain with its chilling depiction of an organized death cult preying upon the hapless travelers of India’s wild and desolate roads. Based upon real accounts Taylor gathered during his work suppressing the Thuggee cult for the Nizam of Hyderabad, the book is ominously introduced as an authoritative exposé in which true events have been faithfully woven into a fictionalized narrative.

Group of Thugs c. 1864.

Group of Thugs c. 1864.

As portrayed by Taylor, the Thugs are the votaries of Bhowanee (Kali); the destructive aspect of the Supreme Being. Endowed with superior intelligence and cunning, they are sent forth to make “sacrifices” on her behalf. The reward for their piety is the plunder they gather from their victims. In so far as they observe her omens and obey her taboos, Bhowanee grants them protection from earthly authorities.

Their modus operandi is to inveigle wealthy marks into joining their camp, or to merge with travelling caravans who seek protection in numbers while making treacherous journeys through foreign lands. “Thug” being the Hindi word for “conman,” they proceed to charm and manipulate their travelling companions into lowering their guards. Then, at some remote, well chosen-spot, a signal is given and each Thug simultaneously strangles his assigned victim with a roomál (hankerchief). The bodies are quickly stripped and deposited in preprepared graves, which are then skillfully disguised, as by building fire pits over them to explain the disturbance of the earth. In order to quietly and routinely commit mass murder, the Thugs must operate with military efficiency. Each man is trained to perform a repertoire of specialized roles, including those of strangler (bhuttóte), grave-digger (bélha), inveigler (sótha) and those who bury the dead (lugháees).

The anti-hero protagonist of Confessions of a Thug is Ameer Ali (based upon Syeed Amir Ali, a prolific Thug who turned King’s evidence). As a small child his parents are murdered by Thugs, but one, Ismail, chooses to spare him and raise him as his son. After Ameer forgets his parents and learns his stepfather’s vocation, he is initiated into the cult. The ensuing narrative reads much like a conventional adventure story of a boy heading off to sea, or running away with a band of gypsies, except for the stark fact that the protagonist is repeatedly committing acts of cold-blooded murder…

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