Shed activity has been on tickover for a few days, in humility and with thanks to our stars, after a little accident with a hedgecutter and its own power cable. More on that later.
Meanwhile, The Shed bulletin board includes the suggestion that if the old Rover & Adventure, in its original text-heavy form, was still going, it would probably pinch, for a crafty re-presentation, Miranda Carter’s piece on thuggism, in the Telegraph at …
As Mrs Carter and her sub put it: “The murky story of a murderous cult of 19th-century criminals is ripe for fictional treatment.”
She wrote: “The word “thug” is used universally to mean anyone who perpetrates mindless violence. But it’s often forgotten that it once had a very specific meaning – one so horrible it was the reason the word entered English in the first place. The Thugs were Indian roadside bandits, originally from what is now Madhya Pradesh in central India, who strangled and robbed unwary travellers, having previously befriended them. The word comes from the Sanskrit sthag, meaning to deceive or trick.
“I first came across the Thugs about 15 years ago. My mother-in-law, a remarkable woman who had spent 12 years in Chennai (then Madras), talked fascinatingly about them and their nemesis and chronicler, William “Thugee” Sleeman.
“Sleeman was one of those now-forgotten, larger-than-life, 19th-century colonial figures, a brilliant linguist and exceptional administrator with a voracious appetite for work and great intellectual curiosity.
“But he was chiefly famous for the campaign he led to crush the Thugs in the late 1820s and early 1830s, and the articles and books he subsequently wrote about them, based on interviews with those he had persuaded to turn informer.
“Sleeman described a secret India-wide cult of murderers with its own customs, rituals and language, plying its trade along the roads of India over centuries. During the dry season from October to March, the Thugs would travel in large groups. Scouts would select victims – always other Indians – and the group would then take on a disguise to win the trust of their prey. They might present themselves as a band of musicians or Sikh merchants or high-caste pilgrims, always making sure they vastly outnumbered their victims. Among the Thugs, there was always an inveigler or deceiver, often the chief or jemadar of the gang, whose role it was to charm and persuade other travellers to join them.
“The gang might travel with their marks for a day or a week. Then, one evening, as everyone sat round the fire, the stranglers, or bhurtotes, and two helpers would quietly position themselves behind each victim. The Thug leader would make a sign – calling for tobacco perhaps – and the stranglers would throw an orange scarf, the rumal, around the victims’ necks and garrotte them, their helpers grabbing hold of the victim’s arms. Thugs prided themselves on the speed and precision of their work. No one was spared, the victims just a few more of the disappeared on India’s empty roads.
“Once the victim or victims were dead the bodies were stripped of all identification and thrown into round graves dug beforehand, their stomachs cut open to disperse any gases produced during decomposition that might attract attention, while their possessions were taken off by a small contingent of the gang to be divided up later.
There were two other things that made the Thugs particularly unpleasant. One was the scale of their killing: Sleeman’s grandson estimated that over the centuries they had committed more than one million murders. (More realistic estimates now put the figure at somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000.) One single Thug named Buhram apparently confessed to more than 900 murders.
“Moreover, Sleeman said, their crimes were not simply murders, they were acts of devotion to the goddess Kali, the many-armed, black-faced Hindu goddess of death and destruction, who wore a necklace of severed heads. She fed off the blood of their victims.”
The story had a huge sociological impact in the west and gave Hinduism a dark reputation its followers resent. .Mrs Carter says that although Sleeman apparently had an impressive body of evidence for the thousands of executions he authorised, they probably did not support the half of the story he told, which was a mix of fact, racial and religious misunderstanding and, the family acknowledge, probably a lot of statements made under torture.
Anyway, that is enough for Shed Productions. Get me a picture of two guys in toupees, reeling back in horror as their torches light up a statue of Kali, and clear the front page …
PS of the Day: It has been mentioned in The Shed that The Red Album, by Red Molly, is nice newgrass harmony, and it sounds promising from a quick YouTube.