“Thug Life” Started On The Streets of India

Thug Life! A phrase most commonly associated with Tupac and HipHop has very uncommon origins.  Did you know that the word Thug originated from the Sanskrit word Sthaga, which refers to an organized gang of assassins? Thugs travelled in groups across India for several hundred years. Hindus appear to have been associated with them at an early period as worshipers of Kālī, the Hindu goddess of destruction.  The fraternity possessed a jargon of its own, Ramasi, and signs by which its members recognized each other.  The first mentions of this word can be found in the written History of Fīrūz Shāh dated around 1356.

In the reign of that sultan (about 1290), some Thugs were taken in Delhi, and a man belonging to that fraternity was the means of about a thousand being captured. But not one of these did the sultan have killed. He gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the lower country, to the neighbourhood of Lakhnauti, where they were to be set free. The Thugs would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti and would not trouble the neighbourhood of Delhi any more. —Sir HM Elliot, History of India, iii. 141.

The Thugs would join travelers and gain their confidence. This would allow them to then surprise and strangle their victims by pulling a handkerchief or noose tight around their necks. They would then rob their victims of valuables and bury their bodies.

Some historians now argue that the Thug Cult was in many ways an invention of the British colonizers as a way to better control India. Historian Martine van Woerkens argues in her bookThe Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India that the Thugs may have been the result of “colonial imaginings,” and that the brutality used to suppress the group has been overlooked.  The story of Thuggee was popularized by books such as Philip Meadows Taylor’s novel Confessions of a Thug, 1839, leading to the word “thug” entering the English language. Ameer Ali, the protagonist of Confessions of a Thug was said to be based on a real Thug called Syeed Amir Ali.

thuglifeHere in the United States, the word thug has long been a staple in rap lyrics. According to the invaluable site Rap Genius, “thug” appears in either the name of the artist or in the lyrics of over 4,800 songs. And Tupac Shakur famously had “Thug Life” tattooed across his abdomen.  Not everyone is happy with the prevalence of thug culture in hip-hop. As Tricia Rose writes in her book The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop and Why It Matters: “The thug both represents a product of discriminatory conditions and embodies behaviors that injure the very communities from which it comes.”  Check out what Tupac has to say about “Thug Life”


What do you think?  To Thug or Not to Thug?