How Does an Armenian Jew dressed like a naked fakir, become a sufi saint?

Said Sarmas the naked sufi sadhu

Said Sarmas the naked sufi sadhu

Sa’id Sarmad is described a Jewish, Sufi, Catholic Priest and Hindu sadhu, beheaded by Aurangzeb and yet honoured a Sufi saint.

So how did this sadhu, “naked, covered with thick crisped hair all over the body and long nails on his fingers[1]” become a Muslim Saint while being accused of drinking wine an a homosexual affair?

Or was his religious identity commandeered ex post facto by the official Islam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, where called shaheed, or martyr, his dargah of blood red tiles , lays beside the Sufi Khwaja Harey Bhareys calm green tomb. Incense and candles burn perpetually, gawalwali singers praise him as pir, prayers are offered, fatwas issued, pilgrimages made, vows fulfilled and mystics venerated.

A festival is held on his death anniversary, the 18th day of Rabi.

In his Rubaiyat, he describes himself “a follower of the Furqan (i.e., a Sufi), a (Catholic) priest, a (Buddhist) monk, a Jewish rabbi, an infidel, and a Muslim:’ His voice seems humourless, critical of religions for the sake of the god they hide.

 So what are we to make of this Armenian Jew born in 1590?


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Sarma refused to see god in an orthodox way.

 “ Survey his 320 quatrains … we discover the following motifs: (1) Four quatrains express disdain for organized religion in general; (2) Eight quatrains convey contempt for Islam in general and even Sufism in particular. Another five praise wine-drinking, which of course is proscribed in Islam but which is a central metaphor for mystical ecstasy in Sufi literature. He also commits two Islamic blasphemies: in three quatrains he proclaims himself an idol-worshipper, and in one equates himself with the Prophet Muhammad; (3) Seven quatrains poke fun at Hinduism, especially the sadhus, al- though in one he proclaims himself a devotee of Rama and Lakshman, and as mentioned, in three he proclaims himself an idolater, which may be an affirmation of a Hindu identity; (4) In one quatrain he expresses disdain for Judaism” observed scholar Nathan Katz (Katz, 154)

Perhaps he reflected a turbulent religious period, or were his contemporaries simply mistaking sufism critique of organised religion for atheism. Was Sa’id Sarmad seeking the essence of divinity behind the mask of religion?

 “Widespread religious movements, having… their roots partly in the vivifying contacts of Hinduism with Islam, had produced a religious enthusiasm among the masses that was transforming the older Brahmanical religion.” (Ikram, Muslim Civilization in India, p. 232.). Even before the Mughals Sufism; Ramananda’s (ca. 1400 – ca. 1470) non- caste- devotion to Rama; monotheistic, bhakti Vaisnava movements such as Vallabhacarya’s (1479-?); the Kabir Panth founded by Benarsi poet Kabir (1398? 1440?-1518); and Sikhism by Guru Nanak (1469- 1538). Often caste was blatantly ignored in North India.

Even before the demise of the Delhi Sultanate in the fourteenth cen tury, official policies allowed Hindus self government according to Hindu law, so long as they paid their jizya or non-believer’s tax to Muslim rulers.

The Mughal dynasty was founded by Babur (1483-1530), whose policy was to suppress Hinduism , Sufism and Shi’a Islam, destroying Hindu temples, often constructing a masjid on the site. However, within fifty years, his grandson Akbar (1556-1605) reversed the jizya in 1565, and opened religious diversity and debate between Sunni, Shi’a, Jesuit, Hindu, Zoroastrian, or Jaina sages much as 3rd century BCE Buddhist, Ashoka Maurya. This led to Akbar’s policy of suhl-i-kuhl , respect for all religions, praised by minorities but seen as heretical by some Sunni’s. The policy was to be in force until Aurangzeb seized power and reinstated the hated jizya in 1679. (Under enormous pressure, Aurenzebs successor revoked it).

Sarmads prominence occurred under Prince Dara Shikoh, son of Shah Jahan, who followed Sarmad’s advice to reinstitute a policy of religious debate once held by Jehans grandfather Akhbar.

Akbar’s openness to other religions led to his being claimed to have been a Christian, a Jain, and a Parsee (Zoroastrian), as well as a Sufi. However by others it was “resented as being in substance an attack on the Muhammadan religion,” (Vincent A. Smith, Akbar, the Great Mogul, New Delhi, S. Chand & Co., 1966, p. 132).

Believed to have great sanctity and supernatural powers, Prince Dara Shikoh brought Sarmad to the attention of his father, Emperor Shah Jehan.

to investigate Sarmad. The Qazi (judge) Inayat Ullah Khan to head an inquiry, but Sarmad was inaccessible to the judge, and accosted the Emperor at court. The Emperor praised Sarmad’s sanctity, but questioned his nakedness.

Sarmad is said to have replied with a quatrain:

“Why do you object to my nudity at the same time as you acknowledge my miracles?
The truth is not what is visible,
but the truth is what is concealed in my heart,
and that is love.”

“With the encouragement of his guru, Dara transformed the Mughal court into an arena for interreligious debate, much as had done his grandfather, Emperor Akbar (1542-1605).The [Urdu] taskara describes the unlikely scene: “There used to be Muslim scholars as well as Hindu yogis present in his [Dara's] court and he used to rank them all alike. In fact, he adopted religious practices that were a mixture of Muslim and Hindu beliefs… These practices were such that Aurangzeb, a staunch Muslim, hated him. As Aurangzeb was against Dara Shik[oh, automatically Hazrat Sarmad came under suspicion." Nathan Katz, 28 (9)

As Jehan aged, driftng into insanity say some, his kingdom was divided. Aurangzebs won the internecine battles ending suhl-i-kuhl .

"Aurangzeb reimposed the jizya... and followed a policy of destroying as many Hindu temples as possible... goods belonging to Hindu merchants were subjected to a custom's duty twice as heavy as that demanded from Muhammadan traders." (Edwards and Garrett , Mughal Rule in India, Delhi, pp. 153-154.)

Why was Sa'id Sarmad executed?

Dargah of Sarmad Shaheed

His nakedness was scandalous, as was his use of bhang (marijuana), outlawed by Aurangzeb and Sarmad's homosexual (?) affair with Abhai Chand concerned others.

Some Sufis known as Malamatiyas, or the blameworthy, discarded shariah to express their belief that love was the ultimate means of achieving union with God.

Most biographers describe that the love between Sarmad and Abhai Chand was "pure."

The earliest written account of their relationship is the 1660 work, Mu'bid Shah's Dabistan:

"When he arrived at the town of Tatta, he fell in love with a Hindu boy, called Abhi Chand, and abandoning all other things, like a Sanyasi , naked as he came from his mother, he sat down before the door of his beloved. The father of the object of his love, after having found by investigation the purity of the attachment manifested for his son, admitted Sarmad into his house, and   Abhai Chand became Sarmad's student, studying Jewish religion and the Hebrew and Persian languages well enough to translate sections of the Hebrew Bible into Persian".

For unknown reasons, Sarmad later renounced all clothing.

Perhaps, Sarmad’s fearless attitude was too much for Aurangzeb who soon called on his chief Qazi, Mullah Qawi, and plotted to do away with Sarmad. The Urdu taskara, argues that both Aurangzeb and Sarmad were "right," as expressed in the Preface (pp. 7-8): "Hazrat Sarmad was a victim of injustice, but on the other hand Aurangzeb was not a culprit... urangzeb was not an enemy of Hazrat Sarmad, but as Emperor he had a moral obligation to defend the religion, Islam."

After the assassination of Dara’s and his close associates Sarmad is said to have accused Aurangzeb of injustice, naked in the court and without respect. His support for Dara gives political motive and quatrain 320 expresses faith in Hindu gods which may have alarmed the Emperor.

In another story, Aurangzeb found Sarmad on the roadway between the palace and the Jama Masjid for Friday prayers.

When he rebuked Sarmad for nakedness, the Sufi asked the ruler him to cover him with a blanket. he saw "freshly chopped heads, including the heads of his three innocent nephews and their companions." Terrified by this vision, Aurangzeb dropped the blanket, and Sarmad asked, '"Tell me, shall I hide your crimes or my body?"( Urdu taskara, pp. 39-40.)

Poetically Sarmad wrote:

He who gave thee an earthly throne,
Gave poverty to me;
The costume covers ugliness;
The faultless are granted the gift of nakedness.
Rubiy'at 105, in Ezekiel, Sarmad (Jewish Saint of India), p. 321).

His ability to command immediate attention and Sarmads support for the murdered Prince Dara worried the emperor concerned of rebellion, or possibly, as Lakhpat Rai suggests, the religious establishment pressured the more conservative Aurengzeb.

Arrested in 1070 A.H. he was first accused of breaking Sharia by his nakedness, and denying that Ahmed (Muhammad) miraj to heaven.

Sarmad had written:

The mullah says that Ahmad went to the heavens;
Sarmad says the heavens were inside Ahmad.

Nakedness did not merit execution and the poem was unclear said Aurangzeb.

He was convicted of blasphemy. Sarmad was asked to recite the kalimah shahada, to accept the oneness of God, or “La Ilaha Illallah, Muhammad-ur Rasul Allah” (there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad SWT is the messenger of Allah). Sarmad recited only “La ilaha” (There is no god) without completing it with “illa’llah” (except God).

He claimed:

Presently I am drowned in negation;
I  have not yet attained the station of affirmation.
If I said the whole phrase in this state,
I would be telling a lie.

This reflects the Sufi doctrine of fana and baaqa, the annihilation of the individual and subsistence in the Eternal.

The next day before the executioners sword, near the Jama Masjid, he declared smiling to heaven:

May I be sacrificed for You.
Come, come, for in whatever guise
You come, I recognize You.


        There was a commotion
        and I opened my eyes
        from the dream of non-existence.
        I saw that the night
        of sedition still remained,
        and so I went back to sleep.

Legend then claims his picked up his severed head recited the kalmia several times and mocked the emperor as he approached the Jama Masjid.

sarmad tomb res

A Sufi saint?

Nathan Katz suggests Sarmad's religious identity may have been commandeered ex post facto by the official Islam of Delhi's Jama Masjid, where he is buried.

This acute observation is made by Nathan Katz which agrees with my observations of Indian psychology living in that wonderful country. Hindus will happily pray at a Sufi saints shrine and assimilate other religions. Sarmad has been claimed by Radha Soami Satsang, to which Sarmad scholar Ezekiel belongs, among others.

As some pass pilgrimage manuals, taskaras or hagiographies, collections of quatrains, they feel a distaste for tourism

His tomb is described this way "Outside: a confusion of shoppers, beggars, biryani stalls and goats. Inside: stillness. Sandwiched between the imposing Jama Masjid and the chaotic Meena Bazaar, the Sufi shrine of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed in Old Delhi boasts of no dome or marble. The cramped courtyard gets its homely character from a giant neem tree and a Mughal-era well. The dargah is flanked by Imran’s chai (tea) shack, the Sonic CD store, Raza Bookshop, the Qutubkhana Sarmadi stall that sells pamphlets, perfumes and amulets, the one-room office of Al Makkah Tours & Travels, and Rahat Open Surgery, an open-air clinic where a hakeem claims to cure diseases like cancer and diabetes by bloodletting. "

"A sufi would not walk around naked. Don't talk lies!" is one. Perhaps we are seeing the past through the eyes of modern, in some cases Fundamentalist Islam. Of course many a New Age Mystic has yet to see India, or if they do they may have not ventured far from a tour.

Or perhaps should we view Sarmad more cynically, like his descendant Pir Syed Mohommad Sarmadi.

"A hugely fat Sufi with a mountainous turban, an Elephantine girth and a great ruff of double chins"listed by historian William Dalrymple to be like those "Sufi" villagers who offer "spiritual surgeries" with little grasp of cures or Sufism. Sitting cross legged below Arabic calligraphy, this modern Sarmadi "will wave his peacock feather fan and blow over the petitioner, recite a bit of Quran, write out a charm or a sacred number, and place it in an amulet." taking about two minutes and taking two minutes. There is a queue from ten to five PM (City of Djinns-A year in Delhi: p283, 284).

Or is there a deeper message?

To the believer, Sarmad is an example of humbly bowing ones head to his head to both mosque or temple. Of burning with a love of the divine that.

Syeda Hameed in Faith and Tolerance quotes Sarmad:

'A true lover of God is misled both by religion and lack there of.'
The moth burns itself 
it does not choose between burning candles
 whether it is in the mosque or the temple.

The idea of true religion means not distinguishing between a mosque or a temple, a church or a gurudwara. If you are a moth, then your end is fanna and if this is the understanding, then Faith and Tolerance just as easily becomes our creed."

Nathan Katz study attempts to understand the Sufi mentioning mentioning Aldrous Huxley there is one extra-linguistic ("ineffable") experience metaphysical/experiential essence which is subsequently interpreted according to the doctrines of the world's various religions. Or as Agehananda Bharati, explained all religions are reducible to a "numerical oneness", expressed by non-dualist thought of Advaita Hinduism, that is expressed in monotheism such has the Jewish and Islamic creed that God is one.

"And somewhere in the midst of this debate we encounter Sarmad, who wandered from synagogue to masjid to ashram, claimed by each group as one of their own, and claimed by modem followers of certain mystical traditions to have transcended all such categorization. " (Nathan Katz).

Perhaps Sarmad made love with life. God is the only God, there is no one between you and God. There is no mediator, God is immediately available. Just all that is needed is a little madness and a lot of meditation.
Was his love for Abhay Chand a manifestation of God that is around and through all things? Was he saying God is in us, and in a lover?Kabbalist's, Christian mystics and Sufis express the love of God, Jesus or Allah as intense passionate love or intoxication. (While this does not mean they all broke traditional morals).

But like a moth to a flame, he seems to have rushed himself to execution.

“Who is the lover, beloved, idol and idol-maker but You?
Who is the beloved of the Kaaba, the temple and the mosque?

Come to the garden and see the unity in the array of colours.
In all of this, who is the lover, the beloved, the flower and the thorn?”

I can here my Christian parents describing him a religious oddball, that's India for you!



[1]Introduction to Rubaiyat-i-Sarmad, Lahore, Marghoob Agency, 1920, pp. iv-v, quoted by Rai, Sarmad, His Life and Rubais, p. 25


The Identity of a Mystic: The Case of Sa’id Sarmad, a Jewish-Yogi-Sufi Courtier of the Mughals, Nathan Katz, Numen, Vol. 47, Fasc. 2 (2000), pp. 142-160

Published by: BRILL Article Stable URL:

Agehananda Bharati, The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of ModernMysticism, Santa Barbara, CA, Ross-Erikson, 1972

B.A. Hashimi, “Sarmad, His Life and Quatrains,” Islamic Culture (1933): 663-672, p. 666

David Shea and AnthonyTroyer, The Dabistan or School of Manners, 3 vols., Paris, Oriental Translation Fund,1843

Urdu Taskara

Ezekiel, Isaac, A., Sarmad (Jewish Saint of India), 4th ed. Punjab, India : Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 1988

Vincent A. Smith, 1966, Akbar, the Great Mogul, New Delhi, S. Chand & Co.

Dalrymple,W., 2004, City of Djinns-A year in Delhi, Penguin Books, India (originally 1993, Harper Collins, London).





Sari’s, Servants and Social Status

sari bike 2

from Mukulika BanerjeeThe Sari, (2003, Berg, Oxford)

A beautiful sari is a delight to behold at formal occasions like weddings or India’s many festivals. Historically, dress has always revealed a lot about a persons social position. I have found no more complicated example that the tradition of handing down worn saris to maids in a quasi family relationship.

Consider:  The mistress of the house edits her sari collection. Perhaps an older woman is gifted too many expensive saris by her daughter.  She cant refuse them but as an older woman she prefers soften thinner clothing than the new heavier textiles.

But sadly a maid is rarely asked what she wants to wear, leading to misunderstandings and tensions.

The mistress no doubt believes she has discriminating taste but believes her poorer maid lacks taste ability to chose well, instead assuming the girl enters a store to buy a maids sari set by budgetary limits probably synthetic and not, she assumes, of cotton.

Rarely are the assumptions justified. True, a maid probably admit a synthetic cotton is suited to her work but would be delighted by a more delicate but not necessarily more expensive sari.
A maid must balance her mistress expectations with the village expectations, still held by her family, and the town where she works. Frequent harvest and life cycle festivals require her frequent return home, where gifting is an expected ritual. From the city, a village family probably expect their daughter to return from the rich city with classier gifts.
This is rarely understood by the mistress. A maid working in several homes may be the primary source of saris in an impoverished village!

The incessant demands of the village pressure the girl. Unfortunately the mistress may interpret this as proof the girl is greedy.  The young maid cannot return home to modern without censure, and yet if she returns home in to homely a fashion relatives assume she must be wasteful.

Mukulika Banerjee illustrates in her wonderful book The Sari, (2003, Berg, Oxford) illustrates the problem:

“A kindly employer had given her maid, Lakshmi, an expensive off-white Bengal handloom sari with a woven zari border. The maids experience in the city allowed her to appreciate its quality, and she treasured having it in her trunk. After some time she travelled to the countryside to visit first her in-laws and then her mother. But her disapproving mother in law and sister in law made her change it. They felt there would be talk in the village because it looked like an old garment, the colours pallid and seemingly faded. Lakshmi felt they didn’t like it because even though the sari had green, yellow and white stripes on a cream base with a yellow and zari border, it did not have any ‘designs’ or ‘flowers’ on it. Lakshmi felt contempt at the way a much cheaper and older sari, with loud flowers, met with more approval. She passed on the expensive sari to her mother who, being a widow, was unlikely to encounter such censure for its gentle colours.”

Another difficulty occurs because a mistress who dresses up for functions may want to relax into unstarched, sari a little unkempt. The maid will smartly dress for work which may threaten the mistress. She in turn ensures the hand me downs reflect the girls lower social status.

Another mistress may demand her girls to dress up to show the style and respectability of her house.

There has been a shift as maids now negotiate more openly for saris that better suit there needs. Some mistresses even giving money so the maid can by what she needs instead.

Though perhaps well intentioned the convoluted and contradictory projections of staff patronage remain.

How 4000 years made the whole nine yards of Sari


From Saree Dreams  

“Other clothing is on you, but it is not with you. But the sari is with me. I have to constantly handle it. I just can’t let it lie. The whole thing creates movement and one is moving with it all the time. That is why the pallu is not stitched. And that is the grace of the sari.” – Deena Pathak, Actress

Infinitely flexible   it is protects a woman of the sun or her modesty, can be used to quickly wipe a table, lift hot pot from the stove, filter out smog or wipe sweat from the brow. The sari is the most personal of clothes.   Its sensual caress on the skin connects you to an inner and outer world.

… and you never grow to big for it!

In modern times the nivi style, draped from right to left, twice passing the lower body, no part of the body is caressed or touched the same way. The weight of the pallu on the left shoulder tihhtens across the right breast, the left feeling exposed but for a camisole or choli that reveals the navel around which the whole garment revolves.

Wear the petticoat to high and she is compared to a nun. Too low and she is to “filmy” Gold threads can irritate the navel, sweat trickle down legs but are pleasurably cooled by the air.

The epitome of graceful movement, it is the most sensuous of intimate garments and the garment of road workers. The pallu can make girl coy peep hole of folded cloth, cover her laughing smile, reveal subtle decorum or be erotically draw attention to her eyes and lips.

But from where did the sari start?

Small terra cotta images Indus valley civilization (2300-1750) display fabric around hips sarong like gathered or pleated at the front below the navel in a girdle or kamarband (belt, knotted chord). Women were jewellery, lip stick and bracelets.

Except a small fragment of woven material, pasted inside the lid of a silver  vase, and a bundle of mordant dyed cotton thread, no Harappan thread remains.

The word sari is found is found in ancient literature but the modern style over the lower body only are not as the modern sari. However, some suggest it derives from the Prakrit word Sattika, later morphed into the word sari.

Draped garments , shawls and scarves existed in the Vedic era (1500-450 BCE) and the Vedas mention a strip of cloth worn above the knees called nivi, “gathered”, which was possibly like short garments above.

In the 4 century BCE a nivi was worn with an ankle length lungi-like a skirt and an upper body cover , adivasa, and a scarf like over garment overhang.

However, the scholar Fabri suggests the modern sari evolved not from the nivi but from the dupatta or scarf that lengthened over time.

Also, by 320 BCE a sari like wrapped garment was worn with one free end called a pallu, to cover the upper body. By the second cent CE the pallu came to be over the head as elaborate headdresses became less fashionable.

amarvati hairstyles IMG_9859

Hairstyles: from a plaque at Sanchi, tomb of the Buddha originally from Mauryan Emperor Ashoka

But was there a Greek influence? Softly draped Greek garments were bought to India by the Greek wife of Chandragupta Maurya (ruled c323-298 BC) founder of the first great Indian empire. During the reign of his grandson Ashoka ( c272-231 BCE) both sexes wore one peace draped garments.

Sculptures from subsequent Sunga and Kushan periods show prototype saris and in Ghandara (now northern Pakistan) under the Kushans (late 1 – -3rd century CE). Sculptures from the Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta schools (1st–6th century CE) show a dhoti like wrap, loosely covering the legs with a long flowing drape and no bodices.

We find images are clothed in “saris” wrapped around waste, with a free end either pleated or tucked into back waistband, or thrown across the upper body or shoulder. Variation’s of this theme developed to culminate in the modern sari in the 18th century.

Today’s, modern sari may be plain or woven, generally 5 to 8.2 metres in length, and is draped by personal or regional considerations. It is worn with a long slip and a choli, a tight fitting blouse, leaving bare midriff. It is usually fasten to the front, but some are backless and tied chord at neck and lower back. In earlier times, garments with the same name used as breast supports.

The Rig Veda talks of cloth of “shining gold” and silk garments with gold thread favoured by Hindus. Possibly gold leaf was wrapped around a core, probably silk, to create metallic threads. Even to this day silk brocades with floral motifs, kimkhah, have delicate woven gold. The most famous from Banares other centres Hyderabad, Bombay, and Madras.



What I would like to believe comes from a legend reported at

“The Sari, it is said, was born on the loom of a fanciful weaver. He dreamt of  a woman. The shimmer of her tears. The drape of her tumbling hair. The colors of her many moods. The softness of her touch. All these he wove together. He couldn’t stop. He wove for many yards. And when he was done, the story goes, he sat back and smiled and smiled and smiled”.


A culture of complaint?

Gandhi & Nehru 1942

Gandhi & Nehru 1942

Indians have the legal right to protest and the right to contrary views. The constitution does not allow violence or destruction of private property in expressing personal views. Nor does it allow for false statements that could lead to harm others.

Perhaps the best advice if some artist or writer offends you is don’t read or see it. When books are banned because of religious sensibilities it seems to me book sales – or sales pirated copies in the side streets go up.

However a culture of complaint has been spreading over India.

Protest is appropriate but violent protest and the destruction of property is not.

Early Indian nationalism had strong religious overtones . Gandhi realised the need to transcend its potential divisiveness, teaching Sarva Dharma Sambhava equality of all religions.

Concerned over primal passions evoked by religion, Nehru was a universal secularist who moderated to a more Gandhian view, perhaps concerned by how to moderated the deep wound of to the new nation during Partition.

Nehru said “Some people think that it means something opposed to religion. That obviously is not correct. What it means is a state  which honours all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities” (Sarveralli Gopal, Jawalharlal Nehru: An Anthology). This could be seen as either an extra dimension to secularism or as a tolerant multi faith republic. Religion is deeply embedded in Indian public life.

As Hinduism numerically predominates India minority groups may feel pressured to deny their heritage. So should there be a wall between state and religion? Or concessions that encourage the ancient minority religions to feel welcome?

As Lloyd I. Rudolph (in Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State) reminds us Nehru  ran India with essentially an urban industrial strategy coalition of urban and  rural interests. With a small but powerful administration  of managerial professionals, from the 2nd and 3rd fie year plans a private sector welcomed freedom from foreign competition.

The English educated middle class manned senior services, built the public sector staffed large firms in modern private sector.

The large land holding  rural notables were junior partners who managed to survive or block land ceiling legislation. As they control state governments, they consented to import substitution and industrial self reliance, middle class control of central government or the advantages accrued to the urban elites.

But from the 1970 to 80′s, the rise of conservative Hindatva and the conflicting demands of caste and tribe “bullock capitalists” “backward classes” middle pesants, and scheduled groups have muddied the waters.

As Union minister Pramod Mahajan said in 2000 “I know that most members of Parliament see the constitution for the first time they take their oath on it.”  Congress politician V. N. Gadgil put it another way in 2005 “In India you do not caste your vote, you vote your caste.”

Mr Gadgill spoke those words in 1995. Now, among the Indian Diaspora I meet when travelling home, I hear concern that India’s tradition toleration and diversity is ebbing in the rush to middle class wealth.

“The current resurgence of identity politics, or the politics of caste and community, is but an expression of the primacy of the group over the individual. It does not augur well for liberal democracy in India” wrote sociologist André Béteille.

While India has had its failures, it has on the whole been a successful democracy.

I hope that Mr Béteille is proved wrong. I hope the realities of the new Indian government will encourage moderation.

Personally, I believe it will.

Split Ply thread for the ships of the desert

Working a split-ply Camel girth thread

The simplest textile in India is found where the camel is the ship of the desert. The camel is essential in the Thar desert of Rajasthan and strong ply-split camel girths are needed for camels to plough, draw well water, pull carts or simply ride through dry sand.

Specially prepared goat hair, or cotton cord, are made into two ply yarn usually black or white, folding it into four and twisting it into a four ply yarn.

There is also a method a twisting of half black half white yarn. Two white two-ply thread is twisted with two two-ply black into a tight   four ply. Yarns are soaked in water then sun dried to un-kink, open and thicken the yarn, setting the overtwist.

Once dried they can be slipped into a spindle.

John Gillow in his masterful Indian Textiles (p 83, 84), describes Ishwar Singh Bhatti of Jaisalmar binding 52 strands, who claimed any more is too difficult to work with.

He splits open the chord with the eye end of large wooden needle, pulled back a quarter turn and the next thread is threaded through the eye and pulled back through the first strand. The process continues down the row with each chord reaching accross the fabric in a diagonal course ending at the selvedge.

Whether a chord splits or is split by an opposite diagonal decides the pattern.

The technique uses four basic patterns  either monochrome (usually black) black and white diagonal checks. The half while half black four ply yarn can be used to make intriguing designs, where the chord is untwisted in the chord splitting  process, so that two plys of the same colour are on the surface. A diagonally interlaced layer of one colour on top of another coloured diagonally interlaced beneath.

Then the twist can be restored to the chord and the colours counter changed and free floating layers  linked together.

split-ply Camel girth thread

split-ply Camel girth thread

Reference: Thanks should be given to John Gillow for his valuable detailing the split-ply process in Indian Textiles, 2008 Thames & Hudson, London.

Beautiful Delhi where are you?

Reflecting on Delhi's architectural past

Reflecting on Delhi’s architectural past

Behind the seductive brochures of medieval forts is a city of conflicting stories. Where chai wallahs are photo-shopped out of the A city “masquerading as a great metropolis” says Bharat Chaturvedi (Finding Delhi: Loss and renewal in a mega city). It has no soul said Surbi, an artist friend from Bhopal. She preferred the art scene of Mumbai.

Perhaps it has lost its soul along with the loss of historic delicate havelis.

During the 2010 Commonwealth Games the carts of wallahs vying for trade, so much a part of the real India, were moved out, even banned from Old Delhi. Betrayed by the need to appear modern. Worry abut “what will foreigners think” about potholes when for decades no one cared about the life of the locals.

Did tourists come to see India or its Disney-fication? Why hide the beauty of common people under a Western facade that camouflaged the beauty of this country I love?

Was it necessary to pave streets in stone – so glorious to look on – that prevents water seeping into Delhi’s dwindling water table? Was it necessary to rush flyovers so poorly planned the free flowing traffic became bottlenecks even death traps?

Was it necessary to put the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lane in the middle of roads and clog traffic? (Actually, I think it was. The need to discourage traffic in Delhi is an important pollution issue, but also a cause of near social war!)

The facade did not hold, incomplete work by a corrupt system soon moved the media at first bustling with pride to cry in shame  of financial mishandling. Meanwhile, most sports loving tourists enjoyed themselves.

Cities are unbelievably complex. They are not just bricks and mortar. A city is not the aspirations of corporations that rarely consider what people would want to call their home. Cities are memories of family, and history, of loves gained and lost. Cities grow organically, they need a planned infrastructure that alows people to contribute and recreate their life.

But Why? A little developmental history


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Perhaps this only extended the trend begun by Britain in 1911 to 1937 founding of New Delhi. The poor migrants of that new city, now wage workers in construction or as coolies were forced rent in the dilapidated katras of the walled city. It became so congested  that it was a focal point for nationalists and the British were forced to act but was reluctant to spend money on ‘native’ areas. “In spite of the consistently hiigh level of frustration at their failure to reverse the process of environmental degradation, the colonial agency never questioned the shibboleth that urban development should be driven by profit and prestige motives of the dominant classes.” (Sandeeep Hazeerasingh, 2001,’ColonialModernism and their flawed paradigms of Urban renerawl in Bombay, 1900-1925‘ Urban History, Vol 28,No.2, pp 242 in A.Sharan, 2006 ‘In the city,out of place: Environment and modenity, Delhi 1860s to1960′s‘,Economic and political weekly, 25 November, Vol 41, No. 47, pp 4905-11.) 

We cannot deny the impact refugees flooding to Delhi after Partition, and a reformist industrial agenda.

The First Five Year Plan saw slums as ‘a national problem’  and a ‘disgrace to the country’. The Second Five Year Plan for ‘balanced’ and ‘orderly’ development included resettlement with ‘minimum dislocation’ that rehoused people from slums as near as possible to their existing employment. The focus was on environmental conditions and not the legality or absence of the settlements . It seems the policy was ‘followed more in violation than compliance’  observed Lalit Batra (‘Out of sight, out of mind: Slum dwellers in ‘World Class” Delhi‘ in Bhrarat Chaturvedi).

Haphazard and unplanned growth was starkly revealed when in 1955 700 people died of jaundice.

Indira Gandhis suspending Constitutional freedoms in the Emergency allowed for attacking the contraditictio of Delhis actual versus planned city.

Large scale and brutal clearing of Delhi Development authority to evict over 150,000 squatter families from the inner city.

DDA chairman Jagmohan was unapolgetic of his plan to build an ideal city, that imparted urbanity and civility, epairing the Walled City being destroyed by ‘the flood of migrants and squatter’ who ‘like a plague or some other kind of fever will cripple and kill Shahjahanabad.”

At Turkman Gate in 1976, 12 people were killed by police for protesting at their home demolition.

Relocations stopped for two decades after the Indira Gandhi’s 1979 electoral defeat with a shift to slum improvement.

What has changed notably since is the effect of liberalisation and globalisation from the 1990′s. The growing middle class see slums as both a legal and environmental issue, which bourgeoisie environmentalists claimed denied ‘citizens’  the legitimate right to the city.

‘Citizen’ should be understood to mean property owners.

As the economy grew so did inner city land values.

Squatting, sice inherently illegal, an ‘unscrupulus element’ that was odered to be removed by the High Court in 2003.

The ironic twist is that – especially since the Commonwealth Games – the middle class want their cheap maids and labourers while expecting them to live in a distant periphery of the city.

Lalit Batra concludes that while the British started the process ‘the elite effortlessly slipped into the shoes of the colonists”  with a hegemonic block of politics, corporation, media, judiciary and affluent citizens.

As a firengi looking on

A haveli courtyard in Old Delhi (c) by Varun Shiv Kapur []

A haveli courtyard in Old Delhi
(c) by Varun Shiv Kapur

While as a firengi looking on, frightened by the challenge of social dislocation, the historian in me looks back at the beauty that is forever lost. As the water table declines soil structure may change, could that risk building stability?

City design is not like designing with lego blocks. No monolithic god like designer can build the perfect master plan. Cties should invite people to sit and play, to grow and thrive as a community.

Communities make cities.

As historian William Dalrymple  lamented the destruction of Delhi’s  historic haveli’s he was given this reminder.

“You must understand,” he said, “that we Hindus burn our dead.” Either way, the loss of Delhi’s past is irreplaceable; and future generations will inevitably look back at the conservation failures of the early 21st century with a deep sadness. 

Yet the rituals of cremation in part is a symbolic remembrance of the cycle of life and rebirth and a respect for nature. Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist traditions ask us to hold onto the bones of our humanity. Their ritual remember the cycles of nature. Insead corporation distances us from both nature and our compassion.

Cities will outlast our sojourn on this earth so can we ensure they reunite us to the beauty of life and community? Is Delhi losing its natural beauty?


Thuggee cult of stranglers, media frenzy and modern day terrorism?

Was the Thuggee really a scarf wielding religious cult?

Was the Thuggee really a scarf wielding religious cult?

The “thuggees”, (or as we say, “thugs”), were a fanatical religious group in India who were infamous for their ritualistic assassinations, so the story goes. Or were they the product of a scared British imagination?

The legend of the Thuggee, or deceivers, excited the British public spread thanks to Dr. Richard Sherwood and Colonel William Sleeman, later renowned as “Thuggee Sleeman.” Were they really a cult that traced back to the time of Tartars? Or an exaggeration of British imagination, perhaps even no more than disaffected mercenaries, out of a job as zarmindar armies fell to Britain?   

In 1799 it seems about 100 were apprehended near Bangalore. Thuggee stories first appeared in Sherwoods report for Madras Literary Gazette in 1816. Dr. Sherwood was report of the Phansigars, from the word Phansi, Hindi for noose , so inspired British imagination that was one of the colonial eras most read accounts[1].

The Phansigars were, said the British, both a religious sect, and “villains as subtle, rapacious and cruel as any who are to be met with in the records of human depravity.” They were protected by Polygars (Indian chiefs) and local rulers who took a cut. Groups of ten to 50 were mostly Muslim, with Rajput Hindus and rare few Brahmins devoted to Kali, addicted to opium and guided by omens (Bruce 1968,13–26).

Scouts would identify wealthy travellers and “skilled in the arts of deception” when their target was most relaxed, a signal, reportedly “Bring the tobacco”, strangle their victim from behind with a scarf, robbed and the body buried, face down identifying facial features mangled.

Sounds pretty bad doesn’t it? And it was there chief adversary that excited the legend.

William Thuggee Sleeman

William Thuggee Sleeman

After serving in Nepal from 1814 to 1816, Colonel William “Thugee” Sleeman requested to transfer to Civil Service to investigate the Phansigars. Sleeman described “a numerous and highly organized fraternity operating in all parts of India.”

There were, and still are, opportunist dacoits, or bandits. During Colonial rule, the Thuggee was accused by the British for over a million murders in India. However, what perhaps shocked, perhaps even terrified, the puritanical British was the link of Kali to Tantra, which incorrectly seemed to link it to unbridled passions, much as contemporary Bible scholars described the sexual excesses and human sacrifices of Canaanites to Molech.

Sleeman “believed that India was under attack—that the foundation of human society was in danger of being destroyed. . . . He recognized Thuggee as instruments of the ultimate evil in their day, of that which as an end in itself takes human life indiscriminately. He was inspired by the belief that Thuggee must be destroyed.”

With so much fiction amongst the facts the truth is harder to determine.

The “Oriental” was characterised mysterious, backward, degenerate, irrational and inferior. The latter novelist John Masters would contrasts Britain’s “impersonal rule of law” to India religious chaos allowed a “million murders” go undetected.


“Intense devotion to Kalee is the mysterious link that unites them in a bond of brotherhood that is indissoluble; and with secrecy which for generations has eluded the efforts of successive governments to detect them.”

Rev. Alexander Duff, India and Indian Missions (1839)

From 1831–32, Sleeman extensively widened their search from Bundelkand and western Malwa to the whole subcontinent: “From the foot of the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, from Cutch to Assam, there was hardly a province . . . where Thuggee had not been practiced.”

Suddenly every petty criminal, highway thief or river pirate was a “Thuggee Menace”.

Reports, rumours, and confessions led to the publication of Ramaseeana; or, A Vocabulary of the Peculiar Language Used by the Thugs.

One leader called Feringhea, “the prince of thugs,” confessed the secrets of the cult, which were “so incredible that at first Sleeman would not believe them.”

It was proof of India’s evil heart, and the need of Christian civilisation to tame it. The secret “Thuggee Menace” could be traced to the Tartars and Moghal’s.


“The most astounding fact about the Thug is that . . . he was a good citizen and model husband devoted to his family and scrupulously straight when not on his expeditions, presenting a complexity of character utterly baffling to a student of psychology. It was essential to the safety of their criminal operations that they should pass as peaceful citizens. . . . Not only had they left no trace behind of their foul deed, but they concealed their trail by every art and craft, and with ill-gotten rupees bribed officials, policeand villagers, in whose territory the murders had occurred. . . . It is not extraordinary that Thuggee remained a mystery; rather it is remarkable that it was ever brought to light”

- William Sleeman

Soon a myth spread with Sir Edward Thorntons 1837 accounts of Thuggee persecution and the popularthree volume crime novel, The Confessions of a Thug (1839), by Philip Meadows Taylor.

According to Alexander Lyon Macfie (208: 385), Taylor based his story in part at least on the confessions of an actual thug, Sayyid Amir Ali, recorded in Sagar in 1832. Quoting van Woerkens obervation that the novel makes “a split is made between ‘the West, the self, harbinger of the future; and the Orient, the other, the elsewhere, the blight of the past in the present’ (van Woerkens 2002, 248). At the same time, in order to further entrap the oriental narrative in a web of European perception, many of the chapters are introduced by epigraphs, taken for the most part from Shakespeare’s plays (Richard III, Macbeth, As You like It, King Lear, Othello) and other mainly European works. In this way the moral authority of the European self is generally (but by no means always) maintained over Ameer Ali, the sometimes noble, brave, sympathetic, but ultimately barbaric and mysterious other.”

MacFie (2008: 385) notes it is possible that Meadows Taylor was more sympathetic than his fellows. “Mary Poovey, in ‘Ambiguity and Historicism: Interpreting Confessions of a Thug’ (2004), on the other hand, suggests that it is possible to read the novel not as a justification of British imperialism but as an oblique critique of the East India Company and everything it represented: assumptions about the racial superiority of the English, the conviction that Christianity is morally superior to various Indian religions, and the belief that western bureaucracy is more efficient and rational than its eastern counterpart.”

Meadows Taylor, was as a “heavily acculturated Anglo-Indian – Meadows Taylor’s wife was half Indian and according to a visiting friend he ruled in Shorapur like a nabob, enjoying all the pleasures of a well-stocked harem – was able to observe both the Indians and the British more objectively than most of his friends and colleagues, and was therefore the better able to appreciate the virtues and failings of both.”

Whatever Meadows Taylor intent, he was the legends chief publicist. The Thuggee was proof the most decent Indian could not be trusted! India, need strict colonial rule.

Another novel, Les E ´ trangleurs de l’Inde, by Me´ry, a French novelist, referred to the thugs as monsters unrelated to the human race. They   ‘to have been issued from the mating of hyenas and baboons’ (Me´ry 1859, 30, cited in van Woerkens 2002, 263–4).

“These common enemies of mankind, under the sanction of religious rites, have made every road between the Jumna and Indus rivers . . . a dreadful scene of lonely murder,” Sleeman lamented, concluding that “we must have more efficient police establishments along the high roads . . . to root out entirely this growing evil which has been . . . increasing under the sanction of religious rites.”

Britain claimed India had fallen into moral decay as the Mughals declined. Criminal gangs and decadent Rajas had left India ravaged and exhausted, strewn with “sacked palaces, vanishing roads, toppled fortresses . . . and ruined towns.” “[G]overnment had ceased to exist; there remained only oppression and misery.”

“The Thuggee was proof of the worst possible corruption. Hence, local authority was overruled by the British who formed special courts over all of India. Agent to the Governor-General F. C. Smith argued, “no Thug should . . . be made over to a native Chieftain for punishment, experience having shown their utter incapacity to put them down and expose their corrupt practices of concealing Thugs for valuable considerations.”

In 1836 a member of a Thuggee gang could be tried in any Company court even beyond its area of jurisdiction and without any form of Islamic law. Evidence could be used that would not hold up in a regular court.

There was a Department of Thuggee later merged into the Criminal Intelligence Department.

Britain claimed it had contained a disease that had been ravaging India for hundreds of years: “Those were the days when British rule in the East was synonymous with courage, strength and justice. . . . [T]he Indian had faith in British government and learned to respect it.”

Sleeman was seen as hero and his work the most “fitting monument to British rule.”

Figures don’t lie

If a million men had died as part of an Indian wide cult  then why, Anuraag Sanghi asks “did the ‘Thuggee and Dacoity Department’ with William Sleeman as Superintendent in 1835, could capture no more than 3,000 highway robbers – of which only 400 were executed. Based mostly on the ‘identification’ by a few ‘hand-picked’ witnesses – from a bank of nearly 500 ‘approvers.’ In nearly a decade! In a population of possibly 25 crores.3,000 ‘thugs’ in a nation of 25 crores? Assuming that all the 3,000 accused ‘thugs’, were ‘guilty’, going by modern imprisonment standards, it remains low.

Writing in 2011 he notes “in modern Britain, there are nearly 17,000 prisoners for violent crime, in a population of little over, 6 crores (60 million). 3 people per thousand in Britain are criminally violent and in prison. … In fact is India was not a criminal society then – and not one today.. India today has the world’s lowest police-to-population ratio – and the lowest prisoners-to-population ratio.”

the goddess kali punishes

Richard Tulloch “Don’t Mess with Kali”


The bloodied Image of Kali

The bloodied image of Kali to the outsider is frightening, Mixed with the legend of the Thuggee it would justifiably frighten a genteel Engrezi.

As retold by the British Kali took the form of Bhowani in order to kill the demon Rukt Bij-dana, every drop of blood from this demon sprouted more. Creating two men from the sweat of her armpits she commanded them to strangle the demons with a ruman or handkerchief. She then established the cult of the Thuggee, to feed on the victims, but when watched eating a copse she decided to give the thuggee a sacred pickax to bury the victims of their dark ritual.

A ritual that the British a blood sacrifice of wine and meat was similar to a witches Black Mass.

 A silver or brazen image of the goddess . . . together with the implements of Phansigari, such as a noose, knife and pick axe, being placed together, flowers were scattered over them and offerings of fruit, cakes, spirits, &c.are made. . . . The head of the sheep being cut off, it is placed with a burning lamp upon it . . . before the image . . . and the goddess is entreated to reveal to them whether she approves of the expedition.

A ritual feast . . . took place after every murder, sometimes upon the grave of the victim. The goor or coarse sugar took the place of the Christian communion bread and wine.  (Hugh B Urbanm, from Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion, p. 83).

Proof, in the British mind, of the demonic Kali’s influence, of hypnotic power, fusing sexual license and political violence. The extreme example of the dark Indian heart of the natural tendency toward lawlessness, perversion, and a murderous instinct.

They go there to offer up in person a share of the booty they have acquired from the victims strangled in their annual excursions. The priests of this temple know perfectly well the sources from which they derive their offerings and wealth, and the motives from which they are made. They suggest expeditions and promise the murderers in the name of their mistress immunity, provided a due share be offered up to their shrine and none of the rites and ceremonies be neglected. If they die by the sword in the execution of these murderous duties by the goddess assigned or sanctioned, she promises them paradise in its most exquisite delights, but if they are taken and executed it must arise from her displeasure, incurred by some neglect of the duties they owe her, and they must, as disturbed spirits, inhabit mid-air until her wrath be appeased. After they have propitiated the goddess by offering up a share of the booty of the preceding year and received the priests’ suggestions on the subject, they prepare for the following year.

Thuggee is an organised system of religious and civil polity prepared to receive converts from all religions and sects and to urge them to the murder of their fellow creatures under the assurance of high rewards in this world and the next (Bruce 1968, 81–3,)

Byam Shaw [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Byam Shaw [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The historical verdict?

The Colonial period historians accepted the authenticity of the British of Thuggee archive, admitting it had its orientalist biases. Post Colonial, mainly Indian, historians began to critique against their erstwhile imperial masters for a constructing their own political view of the past. As the 20th century ended a third group have found balance between competing views of the facts.

Though based on actual criminal activity, there seems little evidence of a exclusive ancient religious caste with violence as their ‘natural pastime.” society. Exaggerating the ‘Thuggee menace’ gave the British “a convenient way of disowning responsibility for its actual origin in the British period” (MacFie: 391). By identifying the thuggee as a ‘traditional’ Indian evil of ancient origin,widely sanctioned by Indian culture and religion, claimed Amal Chatterjee, a British fiction justified an extending British power. van Woerkens suggests a religiously inspired cult may have existed but the misinformed British got it wrong.

Others suggest the thuggee resulted, or atleast spread, as a result of social upheaval following destruction of the Maratha confederacy. Stewart Gordon suggests Evangelicals encouraged turning small thuggee groups into widespread conspiracy typical Indians supposed ‘national character.’

But how could a secret quasi-religious fraternity simultaneously be capable of accommodating just about every Indian? asks Parama Roy. Roy points out that the British evidence was constructed in the absence of evidence, and buy the testimonies of witnesses who saved their own lives by testifying against others. Thuggee, in short, is simply a discourse, one ‘troped in figures of darkness, mystery, inscrutability, unpredictability and unexpected menace’ invented by Sleeman and his associates, who themselves inhabited a heroic narrative of the battle of good against evil (Roy 1998: 54)

Consider the 1812 Thuggee attack N.J. Halhed, an Assistant to the Superintendent of Police in Sindouse. In a battle with a large group, called thugs by locals, three of Halheads men died, and seven were wounded. It could be argued that this proves the problem of violent groups was long standing. Sleeman is the evidence that groups of plundering stranglers existed from the early 19th century.

It is also true that former mercenaries hired to the armies of local zamindars were deprived of income and threatened by starvation.

Dash, based on newly accessed records from the East India Company archives in London, Delhi and Bhopal admitted the “archive did contain a certain amount of exaggeration, in particular with regard to the homogeneity of the thug gangs, the methods they employed and their commitment to the worship of Kali, the Hindu ‘goddess of destruction’.”

Importantly, the archive revealed the British “had distorted the motives of the thugs, which, according to their own testimony were almost always economic.”

It is Macfie who describes what I have always felt:

 “While Sleeman describe the thuggee as as murderous, wicked and deceitful cowards, “the thugs themselves tended to evaluate them in terms of courage, enterprise, bravery, daring, cunning, adventure and martial skill – in other words, in terms usually associated by both the British and the Indians with the heroic values of war… should now be seen in part at least as an orientalist construction, one constructed not on the crude foundations of the stereotypical paradigms identified by Said, nor on the foundations of racial prejudice also analysed by him (though there may have been an element of that), but rather on the foundations of the Christian–Protestant–Enlightenment values Sleeman and his colleagues carried with them willy-nilly when they first departed for India at the turn of the eighteenth century” (Macfie:395).

This view makes sense even from my distant perspective of studying the Australian colonial experience, the excitement of scientific progress came with its own reformist agenda. The New South Wales colony was founded on Botanist Joseph Banks, who was part of Leutenant James Cook expedition charting Australia’s east coast. The Endeavour set out on a scientific voyage that included the use of strict hygiene, diet change to control scurvy. The same trip claimed New Holland for Britain without a treaty with the Abriginee inhabitants it saw as uncivilized.

I also think, the after the mutiny of 1857, British attitudes hardened further. That give us time to reflect on how we view the “other’ in our post 911 world.

There is no doubt in my mind that at time British were attacked – they were the invaders after all. It is wrong to only portray Indians as passive recipients of violence.

The threat of this “perverted religion and equally perverted patriotism” to intensify within into a paranoid fantasy. In the colonial imagination the Thuggee grew from an underground criminal group into a deviant nationwide murder cult, dedicated to the sinister overthrow of British colonial rule.


The 1857 Mutiny

The 1857 Mutiny

The War of 1857 revealed that Britain could only hold India by dividing the people against themselves. A policy of turning Muslims and Hindus against each other followed. However the Independence Movement grew, it was claimed revolutionaries were exploiting Indian tendency toward eroticism and criminality.

Hindu nationalists like Aurobindu Ghose would use Kali’s image to inspired armed revolt against British invaders. But was this really evidence of an extensive thuggee revolution? Or the use of a powerful symbol of feminine power defending sacred mother India, much perhaps as the burqa as a symbol of nationalism today?

Victorian England saw Indian early marriages as morally damaging the young erotic mind: “The Hindu student, depraved . . . by too early eroticism, turns to the suggestiveness of the murder-monger and worships the nitro-glycerine bomb as the apotheosis of his goddess.”

The independence movement was according to Valentine Chirol “in its extreme forms Shakti worship finds expression in licentious aberrations which . . . represent the most extravagant forms of delirious mysticism.” (Indian Unrest , 1910)

Indeed there were revolutionary outrages in Bengal . The 1918 Rowlatt Commission reported violence was “the outcome of a widespread movement of perverted religion and equally perverted patriotism.”

The terrible mother Kàlí was called upon for power, worshipped with orgiastic violence, and “sacrificing the white goats” of British officials to the goddess. The very moral and political fabric of the colonial state was threatened.

In a future post we will examine the use of Kali by Independence fighter such as Aurobindu Ghose.

Still, I wonder if the legacy of British imagination is being repeated today?

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So strong is the myth of the Thuggee it even made its appearance in the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sleemans read like the allegations of medieval debauchery and witchcraft, or of early Christians against the Gnostics, or the misunderstanding of Islam by many Westerners today.

We must avoid extremism, both political and religious, today. Today Islam is commonly the enemy stereotyped in the media. I am not a Muslim, but have lived and worked with many in India. Quiet often a sensationalist story has died long before the facts can be properly examined, but indelible images have been imprinted of the enemy into impressionable minds.

Could the legend of the Thuggee help us learn about media coverage of modern day terrorism?

[1]Macfie notes in Tamul they were called Tulucar or Mussulman noosers; in Canarese, Tanti Calleru, implying thieves, who use a wire or cat-gut noose.



MacFie, L., Thuggee: an orientalist construction?, Rethinking History Vol. 12, No. 3, September 2008, pp. 383–397 Alexander Lyon Macfie

Bruce, G. 1968. The stranglers: The cult of thuggee and its overthrow in British India. London: Longmans.

Roy, P. 1998. Discovering India, imagining thuggee. In Indian traffic: Identities in question in colonial and postcolonial India. Berkeley and London: University of California Press.

Chatterjee, A. 1998. Thugs. In Representations of India: The creation of India in the colonial imagination. London: Macmillan.

Dash, M. 2005. Thug: The true story of India’s murderous cult. London: Granta

Gordon, S.N. 1969. Scarf and sword: Thugs, marauders and state-formation in eighteenth-century Malwa. The Indian Economic and Social History Review 4, no. 1: 403–29.

Masters, J. 1955, first published 1952. The deceivers. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Poovey, M. 2004. Ambiguity and historicism: Interpreting Confessions of a Thug. Narrative 12, no. 1: 3–21.

Sleeman, Willliam. Ramaseeana, or a vocabulary of the peculiar language used by the thugs with an introduction and an appendix descriptive of the system pursued by that fraternity and the measures which have been adopted by the supreme government for its suppression. Calcutta: Military Orphan Press.
———. 1839. A report on the depradations committed by the thug gangs of upper and central India from the cold season of 1826–27 [Dash 2005 has 1836–37] down to their gradual suppression, under the operations of the measures adopted against them by the supreme government in the year 1839. Calcutta: Military Orphan

Taylor, P. Meadows 1998, first published 1839. The confessions of a thug. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

van Woerkens, M. 2002, first published in French 1995. The strangled traveler: Colonial imaginings and the thugs of India. Chicago and London: University ofChicago Press.

Wagner, K.A. 2004. The deconstructed stranglers: A reassessment of thuggee. Modern Asian Studies 38, no. 4: 931–63.