Of the many dangers lurking on the dusty, unpoliced roads of early 19th-century India, none, according to the British, was more fearsome than the so-called thugs. Moving in seemingly respectable bands, these brigands inveigled travellers into trusting them as protectors and, then, at a suitably deserted spot, strangled them with a handkerchief, robbed them, mutilated their bodies and buried them in shallow graves or threw them into wells. The thugs, it was claimed, spoke a coded language of their own and worshipped Bhowani (another name for Kali). They killed to provide their goddess with the blood she craved. Murder, for them, was worship.
Like many supposed horrors and mysteries of the East, the practice of thuggee fascinated the British imagination. Philip Meadows Taylor's 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug was a publishing sensation of the time that sold countless copies. A reviewer considered it "enough to freeze the blood in our veins", and the young Queen Victoria, unable to wait for them to be bound, ordered the final pages of the novel to be sent to her the moment they rolled off the press.
But thuggee, clearly, was more than a lurid manifestation of the inhumanity of Indians. If the East India Company could destroy "this monstrous hybrid of superstition and cruelty", it would not only earn the gratitude of Indians but, as the scholar Frederick Holme pointed out in 1841, "atone for the injustices and rapacity which marked our early acquisitions of Indian territory". The extirpation of thuggee, which was complete by the middle of the 19th century, did indeed help justify the Raj to many Indians as well as to those fastidious elements in Britain who wanted the conquest of India to be guided by a civilising mission.
Opinions have changed radically since then. Thuggee, according to most recent scholars, was a far more amorphous and variegated phenomenon than the British claimed. There were certainly many roving bands of murderers and highway robbers in central India, but they did not constitute a tightly knit guild of assassins. The language and religion that were once thought to be unique to the thugs were variants of folk idioms and practices.
The prevalence of highway crime in the 1820s was related, moreover, to social and economic circumstances specific to the time, especially the co-existence of extreme poverty with the great prosperity of small groups of opium traders. The couriers of the latter often had to travel through economically deprived areas with gold and jewels, and there could be few more inviting targets for robbers. Not only was there no real police force at the time, but since British rule was still far from paramount, there were native rulers with genuine power in central India who often protected the murderers in exchange for a cut of their earnings.
The crimes of the thugs, in short, were motivated by gain and facilitated by mundane circumstances - the British interpretation of it was an Orientalist fantasy coloured by racial and cultural stereotypes.
In this extensively researched book, Mike Dash agrees as well as disagrees with such arguments. It is true, he concedes, that the British exaggerated the religious distinctiveness of thug beliefs, overlooked the importance of socioeconomic circumstances and did not always act with legal probity in the sensational thug trials of the 1830s.
He argues, nonetheless, that the testimony of captured thugs and informers, recorded painstakingly by officials under the leadership of the fabled William Henry Sleeman (1788-1856), reveals incontestably that the thugs not only existed, but did indeed form a relatively homogeneous fraternity.
Supporting his case with long and detailed (albeit occasionally repetitious) extracts from the archival material, Dash follows the story of the thugs from the first British suspicions of their existence to the death of the last thugs in captivity.
His challenge to the scholarly orthodoxy is grounded securely in the sources and suggests - never less than courteously - that the recent readings of thuggee may be as distorted as Sleeman's, and perhaps as influenced by postcolonial fashions as his had been by colonial preconceptions.
One could, no doubt, find lacunae in Dash's argument - he does not assess, for instance, whether the allegedly distinctive language of the thugs was, as recent scholars have argued, merely a collection of folk expressions - but, on the whole, Thug is a thoughtful, well-researched and stimulating introduction to a macabre subject and a reliable guide through the many contentions that surround its history.
Chandak Sengoopta is senior lecturer in the history of medicine and science, Birkbeck, University of London.
Thug: The True Story of India's Murderous Cult
Author - Mike Dash
Publisher - Granta
Pages - 356
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 1 86207 604 9