Derived from the Sanskrit’ sthagati’ for ‘he covers/deceives’, the word as it is used in the caption of this photo—’A Group of Thugs’—referred to men who were hereditary murderers and thieves. Some historians argue they killed to appease their deity, Goddess Kali, and the stealing was just incidental; others make the case that they were merely desperate men, perhaps bodyguards or staff of an erstwhile royal family displaced by the British Raj.
In the new world order of 19th-century India, they were classified as a ‘criminal tribe’ and the British authorities saw it as part of their civilising mission in the Subcontinent to stamp out the thuggees. To this end, the Thuggee and Dacoity Department was founded by the East India Company in 1830 and by the 1860s, when this photograph was taken, these men were regarded more as a colonial curiosity than an active threat. The law enforcement unit founded in their name would be replaced in 1904 by the Central Criminal Intelligence Department or CID.
TitleA Group of Thugs, Simla
PhotographerBourne and Shepherd
DimensionsW: 18.7 cm x W: 27 cm