07 May 2009

JRS: Introduction

Sadly, it took me longer than I expected to get through the introduction. I have to confess a lack of time management on this one, where I'd find myself not reading it until late at night. Between the less than compelling nature of the intro and the eye strain of reading a PDF file on a computer screen, I found I couldn't read much of it.

And, frankly, as with the Preface, it's rather clunky for an introduction. I'd go so far as to say it comes off as a collection of notes or a rough draft for Sleeman's memoirs of fighting the Thuggee. Overall, there's not really much sense of narrative or even cohesive theme.

There are some interesting anecdotes, especially lurid ones where British and Indian soldiers, working with an informant, dig up a place where victims had been buried. There are also some rather choice quotes which I've seen elsewhere, such as Sleeman expressing his shock that a group of murderers could be operating in a district he was governing, when he thought he was aware of every last crime. (Though does this say more about Thuggee secrecy or colonial hubris?)

Sleeman does cover the beliefs and behavior of the Thugs, though not in much depth. He actually identifies four names for the deity worshiped: "Devee, Durga, Kalee or Bhawanee." "Devee" is Devi, which is a generic Sanskrit term for a goddess. Durga is the warrior goddess probably best known from the Devi Mahatmya, where she defeats a demon who has rendered himself unkillable by any male, mortal or divine. "Kalee" is, of course, Kali who probably needs no introduction. As for "Bhawanee," who I think would be Bhavani in a more modern transliteration, she seems roughly analogous to Durga or Kali, probably a local (Tujalpur) variation.

Interestingly, Sleeman makes the claim that among Thuggee, belief in the truth of their divine origin and the importance of omens is absolute and universal. For an interesting contrast I recommend Confessions of a Thug, which features a decidedly skeptical Thug. There is also a certain degree of tension between the view, touched on briefly, that Thuggee was motivated purely by religious motivation, and the fact, gone into in a little more detail, that bands of Thugs chose times, routes, and travelers that were specifically likely to yield more loot. (Then again, even among Christians some people, believe that wealth accumulation can serve as an indicator of moral righteousness.)

There is some analytical content, such as the division of Thuggee into seven distinct clans, though there isn't much of a delineation of the clans. (There are also "river Thugs," though their connection to the land-borne kind isn't entirely clear.) Also presented is Sleeman's supposition that Thuggee are descended from certain bands of Persian Muslims who were adept with using leather lassos to catch and kill travelers. It's my understanding that this hypothesis is not given much credence by current scholars, and Sleeman doesn't really marshal much in the way of evidence for it.

Having finished with the introduction, I now move on to the heart of the text: all that funky Ramasee vocabulary. I hope to post a little more frequently on that.

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