Friday, October 09, 2009

Eggs and Thugs

While reading an article on the recent discovery of dinosaur eggs in Tamilnadu, I found a reference to a William Sleeman, who had made the first such discovery along the Narmada river, in 1828. The name rang a bell, and sure enough, Wikipedia tells me that it was the same Captain Sleeman who had busted the dreaded gang of the Thugees

In the eighteenth century, several cases of missing travelers, absconding sepoys and vanished money-carriers were reported. But it was generally concluded that the travelers had fallen prey to wild animals or that the money-carriers had cheated the owners. There were rumours of a secret society of murderers and dacoits, but this did not perturb the British officials, or was dismissed as yet another of those native legends.

It was not as if the methods of the thugs were not known. In 1816, a Dr Sherwood had published an article in the Madras Literary Magazine ( Sleeman has re-produced that report on Page 370 of his book) in which he had provided a chilling account of the murderous ways of the Phansigars in the South and the Thugs in the North. Sherwood had started his narration thus:

"While Europeans have journeyed through the extensive territories subject to the Government of Fort St. George, with a degree of security nowhere surpassed, the path of the native traveller has been beset with perils little known or suspected, into which numbers annually falling, have mysteriously disappeared, the victims of villains as subtle, rapacious and cruel as any who are to be met with in the records of human depravity….Skilled in the arts of deception, Phansigars enter into conversation and insinuate themselves, by obsequious attentions, into the confidence of travellers of all descriptions.... When the Phansigars determine . to attack a traveller, they usually propose to him, under the specious plea of mutual safety or for the sake of society, to travel together . and on arriving at a convenient place and a fit opportunity presenting . one of the gang puts a rope or sash round the neck of the unfortunate persons, while others assist in depriving him of his life."

But it was not till 1830 when Sleeman took charge of the investigations, and one Feringhea ( who was referred to as the Prince of Thugs) accidentally fell into his net, that the scale, intensity and spread of the Thugee operations came to be known. For the next two decades, Sleeman went about systematically to smoke out different thugs from their hideouts, interrogate them, learn their mysterious language ( Ramaseena), anticipate where the next hold-up was planned, nab the killers, put them on trial and have the guilty executed. Sleeman provides a fascinating account in his book, “ Thugs and Phansigars of India” published in 1839. And also in his memoirs, “ Ramblings of an Indian official” that reads like a series of long blog posts.

Dr.Conan Doyle had modeled Sherlock Holmes on his mentor, Dr Joseph Bell, arguing that similar reasoning powers based on deductive methods were called upon in both Medicine and Criminology. In Sleeman’s case, perhaps, the same methodical approach, was used in rooting out Thugee and in discovering the first fossilized eggs in India . He writes here ( page 127) briefly on how he zeroed in on the fossil spot.

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