The story is about an Indian boy. Let's call him Laxman.
A morning in the 1830s was the day that defined the rest of his life. His 10-year-old self held his father's handa, voyaging to some place his mother did not know about.
"Laxman will go with me to a faraway land. It's about time I trained him for his future," Laxman's father said to his teary-eyed mother.
Laxman knew that his father was a businessman. He himself needed to attain street credibility to run the business, which his father has been doing for a long time. The only missing piece in the puzzle was the fact that Laxman had no clue what business his father was in.
He soon learned an unspeakable truth his father hid from almost everyone in the village. Laxman's father was part of a serial killer cult known as "Thuggee".
The reason Laxman's father brought him along with him was simple - the Thuggee mantle would be passed on to Laxman and he would be baptised as a new member of the cult.
During the colonial period in India, there were thousands like Laxman. They did not initially know about their father's deed, but destiny put them in the same shoes their fathers once wore - the shoes of a ruthless serial killer.
Thuggees' existence dates to as early as the 13th century. An excerpt from the book "Firoz Shah's History" by Ziauddin Barani reads: A group of Thuggees were captured by Sultan Firoz Shah. But surprisingly, the Sultan sent them to another province, unscathed. His only condition was: never come back to Delhi ever.
What was a Thuggee like? If anyone had crossed paths with the cult, who also was lucky enough to evade the murder, would tell you that Thuggees travelled in a group. Their killing spree was a team effort.
Their weapon of choice, however, was pretty non-violent. It was a towel.
The Thuggees would strangle their shikar (prey) with a gamcha, as they did not quite like spilling blood while murdering.
Generally, the Thuggees would pose as regular travellers returning home. They would approach other travellers for companionship. They would suggest other travellers, "We should ride together. I heard this route is treacherous," as if they themselves were scared of the boogeyman.
At stopover, the Thuggees would entertain their victims with food, music and eloquence. The victim had no clue that the gentlemen, with whom he had chatted for hours, would kill him.
"Some men just want to watch the world burn"- this iconic line from The Dark Knight would suit the psyche of a Thuggee.
After they committed the murder, the Thuggees would loot their victims. After all, it was their only means of livelihood. But the motivation behind the murders was more of a spiritual quest.
Thuggees killed for the sake of killing. Looting gold or documents was a bonus for them.
Thuggees, in fact, worshipped the Goddess Kali, otherwise known as "Maa Bhabani."
An adventurous British administrator named William Henry Sleeman was one of the chroniclers of the Thuggees. An excerpt from his book "The Thugs or Phansigars of India" stated that the Thuggees were not originally just Hindus; people from other religions, such as Muslims and Sikhs, were also part of the cult - making Thuggee a secret society for the interfaith lunatics.
The Thuggees were very adept at hiding dead bodies. They didn't resort to bloodshed unless it was required. The victims were buried, or sometimes thrown in a well or river by the Thuggees themselves.
The family of the victim would repent as the missing person never made it back home. "Some wild animal must have killed him," they comforted themselves.
As Thuggees took serial killing as a profession of some sort, they, too, had a peak working season.
During their sabbatical, they would do chores or odd jobs, posing as a family man. The ones who knew another Thuggee belonged to the same cult. As Shripantha puts it in his book: Wives didn't know their husband was a Thuggee, sons only knew when the father wanted to mentor them to ensure his induction into the cult.
Sleeman played a major role in revealing the organised crimes of the Thuggees. As a young army officer, Sleeman had come across a book written by a French traveler called M Thivenot.
The book narrated the horrendous exploits of the Thuggees. Sleeman had a gut feeling that the Thuggees were real, regardless of what people said. He eventually quit his job in the army and joined the civil service, only to get the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong wish of catching the Thuggees.
When others laughed away the Thuggee stories as legends, Sleeman was determined to expose the cult to the public. In the years between 1830 and 1841, he was able to catch hundreds of Thuggees, get them to confess their crimes and put an end to their exploits once and for all.
The Thuggees were pretty straightforward with their confessions. Another narrative from the book "Thuggee" by Shripantho, roughly reads "Hujur, I killed them because the Goddess told me to. It was her plan all along, I just played my part."
Their point blank statement was a testament to the extreme belief system inside the cult. Suffice is to say, most worshippers of the Goddess Kaali were polar opposites of a serial killer.
The Thuggees have graced their presence in pop culture, too. From Satyajit Ray's Feluda to Amrish Puri's historically inaccurate villain in Indiana Jones, the Thuggee myths are here to stay.
"Thugs of Hindustan" by Emilio Salgari or "Confessions of a Thug" by Phillip Meadows Taylor are good reads if a fictional take on historical events interest you. Shripantha's Thuggee, however, is an acclaimed non-fiction about the cult.