In December 1830, William Henry Sleeman got his first big lead in the campaign to suppress Thuggee, which he initiated while serving as an administrator at Sagar, in present-day Madhya Pradesh. The alleged prince of the stranglers, Syed Amir Ali alias Feringhea, turned informer. He knew of a huge gathering of Thug gangs scheduled for February 1831 in Jaipur, from where they would fan out into Gujarat and the Deccan. Sleeman was sceptical, so Feringhea offered a proof of concept. If he was taken to the nearby village of Selodah, he would reveal some interesting burials.
The next morning, at Selodah, Feringhea pointed out three locations. He said that the first, which lay under Sleeman’s tent-ropes, contained the corpses of a pundit and six attendants, murdered in 1818. The second, under his horses, contained a havildar and four sepoys, despatched in 1824. The third, under the sleeping form of Mrs Sleeman in the tent, contained four Brahmins who had carried gangajal for a living, and a woman.
Mrs Sleeman declared that she had “never had a night of such horrid dreams”, Feringhea stood vindicated, Jaipur became a target and operations against Thuggee began in earnest. This hair-raising story, so meticulously detailed that it rings true, is from the foreword of an astonishing book printed at the Military Orphans’ Press, Calcutta, in 1836.
Sleeman is far better known for his Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, a loving description of the Indian countryside on a march from Madhya Pradesh to the Himalayan foothills, and for A Journey Through Oudh, where he was resident and, incidentally, opposed annexation. But this creepy book titled Ramaseeana should be much more widely read. It is available in most online bookstores and on Google Books, but perhaps readers pass it over because the cover says that it is a “vocabulary”. Like Langenscheidt’s. Just not riveting.
But Ramaseeana is a vocabulary of cant, a made-up language like those once popular among thieves and criminals in England and the US, which they used to communicate freely under the noses of their victims and the police. It was recently claimed that thieves in the UK still use cant. Now, apparently, it’s Elizabethan English.
In Ramaseeana, the verbs are all Hindustani, like lena (to take) and dalna (to put). The rest of the vocabulary is based on various dialects of north India and the Deccan. Like, the Thug word for a mass burial is bele, obviously from the Hindi bil, a hole in the ground, such as for playing marbles. A lutkunea was “a very small purse worn only by Thugs and thieves”. It dangled, by the sound of it, but these forms based on familiar roots probably do not exist in any formal language. They are cant words.
If a scout calls out for Lopee Khan, it’s time to hide (from the Sanskrit lop — vanish). But other code words based on names are wholly inscrutable. Like, the lookout’s call signalling imminent danger for a gang of Thugs is: “Lutchmun Singh!”
Ramaseeana is a whopping 515 pages long because apart from the extensive footnotes and appendices, Sleeman used entries in the vocabulary to explore the beliefs and practices of Thugs. The entries for kussee or mahee, the sacred pickaxe for digging graves, describe initiation rites and how gangs selected propitious times for expeditions. And the entry for maunj, the caterwaul of fighting cats, describes the reading of animal omens.
The deployment of Sleeman against the Thugs was Governor General William Bentinck’s response to mounting concerns about the forced disappearance of travellers. Curiously, though, earlier empires had not reported this problem. The Arthashastra has a lot to say about the intelligence apparatus and the foreign ministry, but nothing about lawlessness on the roads. Could the British Empire have triggered the problem?
Sleeman suspected as much, though he blamed globalised commerce, too. The East India Company hired sepoys from all over and they travelled long distances on leave. In 1810, the army had issued an advisory against Thuggee. Sleeman also wrote of speculative money flowing rapidly from Bombay and Surat to Rajputana to Malwa, where opium monopolies were being established. Money travelled in the form of precious metals and gems in the custody of a class of professional money carriers, known for their “fidelity, sagacity and beggarly appearance”. Also, for their tendency to be murdered en route.
Was Thuggee really rewarding? In a raid in 1828 at Burwahaghat on the Narmada, nine lives and 40,000 silver rupees were lost. Quite a fortune, but an orphan who had wandered into a gang spoke of two Muslims murdered on the banks of the Godavari for a pittance, mostly their clothes. And what was the lot of Feringhea, prince of the stranglers? For ratting on his community, he was spared the noose. n