Thug: The True Story of India’s Murderous Religion by Mike Dash - review by John Keay

John Keay

Considerate Killers

Thug: The True Story of India’s Murderous Religion


Granta 317pp £20

As killers go, the Thugs of India must rate among the most considerate. Traditionally they targeted only adult male travellers and, before assaulting them, went out of their way to reassure them by making themselves immensely agreeable. To be thagi meant literally to be ‘a deceiver’, a conman to whom the art of ingratiation was just as important as that of killing. Their softening-up tactics could go on for days. Attaching themselves to some suitable party, the Thugs – they always worked in gangs – would enliven the weary miles with cheerful comradeship, assist with the campsite chores, and fill the long dark evenings with songs and anecdotes. Their presence seemed less a threat than a protection, and by all accounts there was no better company to be met with in the wastes of central India in the early nineteenth century. 

Only when their victims were thoroughly enjoying themselves and utterly trusting of their companions was it time to strike. This was usually after dark, and the timing had been prearranged amongst the Thugs to coincide with their passing a traditional killing ground. The execution itself was conducted as efficiently and

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