Confessions of a Thug


"I have just finished reading an old classic: "Confessions of a Thug" by Philips Meadows Taylor. The book was first published in Britain in 1839 to make the Victorian readers aware of the menace of the "Thugee". Essentially, the book is, as the title mentions, confessions of a Thug who had a long career in the business and was finally captured by the British and turned approver.

To those of much younger generations, Thugs were secretive groups of people who under normal circumstances were settlers in a village, purportedly engaged in normal trades and crafts. But during the travel season [in those days that would be after the monsoons and before the onset of summer], Thugs in organized bands took to the roads and highways with the express intention of looting travelers. The modus operandi too was very interesting. They disguised themselves as ordinary travelers and became a part of the convoy they planned to loot, and at an opportune moment in the journey they would strangulate unsuspecting travelers, bury them and move on with the booty. Each band would have specialist informers who would collect information of potential victims and their travel itinerary], specialist killer [who would strangulate the victims with their rumals] and specialist grave diggers [who were responsible or disposing off the bodies of the victims.

Because of the highly secretive nature of their business and connivance of the local rajas and landlords [who shared a part of the booty, this became a "menace" in large swathes of central, south and north India, till the British under Col Sleeman systematically hunted down thugees and gradually put an end to this form of banditry.

Confessions…. is the autobiography of one such Thug leader Amir Ali and covers his active life as a Thugee. It is a fascinating book to read for many reasons. First of all, it is the only such account which exists today in the written form. Secondly, it gives a vivid account of the political and social confusion that prevailed in most parts of India in between 1800 and 1850. And, finally, although a gory account of cold blooded murder and loot [Amir Ali himself is said to have strangulated over 700 people], it is a remarkable account of the syncretic nature of the popular culture of the age. To give just one example, although a devout Muslim, Amir Ali's best friend and confidant was always a Hindu and he and his fellow Muslim thugs never forgot to invoke Goddess Bhawani, who was the presiding deity of the Thugs.

It is a very rich autobiography on two counts: First it captures much more about the flavor of the period than many formal books on that period of Indian history. And secondly, it reflects the deep seated emotions, mental dilemmas, compromises and indeed principles of a man whom more civilized and genteel society would not have credited with such finer human expressions.

"Well, it would be difficult to get hold of a copy. But you can download the whole book from Google. Read it if you are interested in your past and I promise Amir Ali will not let you down".

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