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Thursday, July 26, 2007The Thug Of India
On a well-worn road through central India, Lieutenant Subhani of the Bengal Native Infantry and his three traveling companions were nearing the final leg of their journey. Ordinarily the Lieutenant would have only his pair of loyal orderlies to keep him company as he traveled, but today a third man walked alongside his horse—a stranger who had joined him only that morning.
The year was 1812, and the pleasant October weather made for an easy trek. Subhani knew these roads could be dangerous for travelers, especially at this time of year, but he was untroubled. Trained soldiers and well-armed, he and his men were an unlikely target for roving bandits. But a much greater threat loomed over them on that dusty road, closer at hand than the travelers could have possibly conceived.
Accounts of a secret cult of murderers roaming India go back at least as far as the 13th century, but to modern history their story usually begins with the entrance of the British Empire in the early 1800s. For some years, India’s British administrators had been hearing reports of large numbers of travelers disappearing on the country’s roads; but, while disturbing, such incidents were not entirely unusual for the time. It was not until the discovery of a series of eerily similar mass graves across India that the truth began to dawn. Each site was piled with the bodies of individuals ritually murdered and buried in the same meticulous fashion, leading to an inescapable conclusion: these killings were the work of a single, nation-spanning organization. It was known as Thuggee.
At its root, the word "Thuggee" means "deceivers," and this name hints at the methods employed by the cult. Bands of Thugs traveled across the country posing as pilgrims, merchants, soldiers, or even royalty, in groups numbering anywhere from a few men to several hundred. Offering protection or company, they would befriend fellow travelers and slowly build their confidence along the road. Often the impostors would journey for days and hundreds of miles with their intended victims, patiently waiting for an opportunity to strike. When the time was right, typically while their targets were encamped and at their most relaxed, a signal would be given—reportedly “Bring the tobacco”—and the Thugs would spring. Each member had a well-honed specialty; some distracted their quarry, some made noise or music to mask any cries, while others guarded the campsite from intruders and escapees. Thugs of the highest rank performed the actual killings. As a prohibition against shedding blood was at the core of Thuggee belief, the murders were performed in a bloodless fashion. The usual method was strangulation with a rumal, the yellow silk handkerchief each thug wore tied around his waist; but an occasional neck-breaking or poisoning helped to add some variety. It was a matter of honor for the Thugs to let no one escape alive once they had been selected for death.
Lieutenant Subhani and his orderlies had spent the previous night as guests at the home of Ishwardas Moti, a prestigious cotton merchant and local official. There he had been introduced to another of Moti’s guests, the man who was traveling with him now. Moklal was his name—a business associate of Moti’s, he was told, and one he had spoken of most highly.
“Narsinghpur!” Moti had exclaimed upon hearing the Lieutenant's destination, “What a fortunate coincidence! Moklal is traveling that way as well. Perhaps you could go with him for the extra protection?”
Subhani, though reluctant to take on a civilian traveling companion, did not wish to offend his host—and at any rate, Moklal seemed amiable enough. He agreed.
A group of Thugs distracts and strangles a travelerFor the members of Thuggee, murder was both a way of life and a religious duty. They believed their killings were a means of worshiping the Hindu goddess Kali, who was honored at each stage of the murder by a vast and complex system of rituals and superstitions. Thugs were guided to their victims by omens observed in nature, and once the deed was done, the graves and bodies were prepared according to strict ceremonies. A sacrificial rite would be conducted after the burial involving the consecration of sugar and of the sacred pickax, the tool the brotherhood believed was given to them by Kali to dig the graves of their prey. Thugs were certainly not above robbing their victims, but traditionally a portion of the spoils would be set aside for the goddess.
Kali, despite her fearsome appearance, is not an evil deity. For more mainstream Hindus, she is a goddess of time and transformation who can impart understanding of life, death, and creation. To the members of the Thuggee cult, she was something else entirely. Their Kali craved human blood, and demanded endless sacrifice to satisfy her hunger. According to Thuggee legend, Kali once battled a terrible demon which roamed the land, devouring humans as fast as they were created. But every drop of the monster’s blood that touched the ground spawned a new demon, until the exhausted Kali finally created two human men, armed with rumals, and instructed them to strangle the demons. When their work was finished, Kali instructed them to keep the rumals in their family and use them to destroy every man not of their kindred. This was the tale told to Thuggee initiates.
All Thugs were male, and membership in the cult was hereditary apart from a few outsiders allowed to join voluntarily and some young boys captured in raids. Around their tenth birthday, the sons of Thugs would be invited to witness their first murder, but only from a distance. Gradually over the years they could strive to achieve the rank of bhuttote, or strangler. Thuggee membership was for life, all the way up to the elderly Thugs who still did what they could for the group as cooks or spies—yet the wives and daughters of these men might never know the truth about the male members of their family.
Their extreme secrecy combined with their mastery of murder made the Thugs the deadliest secret society in all of history. In the early 19th century they were credited with 40,000 deaths annually, stretching back as far as anyone cared to count. Some estimates put the overall death toll as high as 2,000,000, but with the cult potentially operating for more than 500 years before formal records were kept, the true number is impossible to determine.
Even as the evidence began to mount, most members of India's British-run government remained dismissive of claims that a secret cult of murderers was terrorizing the countryside. It would be the efforts of a single soldier that would eventually turn this apathy around.
After nearly a day's travel with his new companion, Lieutenant Subhani did not regret allowing Moklal to join him. The man was talkative and well-educated, and his conversation seemed to shorten the long journey considerably. As dusk approached, Moklal explained that his destination, a wayside grove where he planned to spend the night, was just ahead. “There I am meeting my friends. Please, stay with us tonight, and let me repay you the courtesy of escorting me today.” Subhani, tired from the day’s journey and already beginning to think of where he and his men might make camp, agreed.
A fire was burning by the time they reached the campsite, while around it an animated group of men were gathered. A flurry of introductions went around—many of these men were business associates of Moklal, it was learned, while others were family—and soon Subhani and his orderlies felt like part of the group, eating and laughing with the men.
William Henry SleemanWilliam Henry SleemanSir William Henry Sleeman was a sober, no-nonsense Bengal Army officer who from early on dedicated his career to the eradication of Thuggee. Faced with a wall of disbelief and indifference from his superiors, he transferred to the Civil Service where he could gain enough authority to wage his war personally. As a district magistrate by the 1820s, he gathered a force of Indian policemen under him and set to rooting out the cult with a variety of innovative policing methods. By examining common attack sites and listening for reports of suspicious figures, Sleeman and his men formulated predictions of where the next large attack was likely to occur. They would then turn the Thugs’ own methods against them—disguised as merchants, the officers would wait at the chosen site for a group of Thugs to approach, and ambush them. Information obtained from the prisoners was used to plan the next strike.
But Sleeman’s job would not be easy, as one of the Thuggee cult’s defining characteristics was its pervasiveness within Indian society. In an era where strict caste divisions dominated every aspect of life, Thuggee was unique for transcending all such social barriers. Anyone from a farmer to an aristocrat could be a Thug. Many were even Muslims who, in a truly inspiring feat of rationalization, managed to reconcile their practice of human sacrifice to a goddess with their religion’s strict ban on idolatry and murder. When members of the brotherhood were not terrorizing travelers, they lived as normal—often upstanding—citizens, with ordinary social lives and occupations. It was impossible to know who might be with the Thugs, even among one’s closest friends.
What was more bizarre, and endlessly frustrating for Sleeman, was the level of protection the Thugs seemed to enjoy within India. Though they clearly had the country living in fear, a strange ambivalence toward the cult existed. Local police and officials turned a blind eye to reports of Thug activities, while peasants would simply work around the bodies that occasionally appeared in their fields and wells. Landowners and Indian princes often explicitly shielded known Thugs, to the point that they would sometimes violently clash with British soldiers on the hunt.
The reasons for this strange reaction to the cult are varied and complex. In the case of the lower-ranked members of society, it most often may have simply been out of fear or superstition; it was believed by some that the goddess Kali would take revenge on those who interfered with her followers. The rich and powerful, for their part, may have had some vested interest in Thug activity: bribery, perhaps, or they may simply have been charmed by master con artists. Some poor villages accepted the murder and robbery of rich travelers as simply a way of bringing wealth into the region—for many, Thugging was apparently viewed as a regular tax-paying profession, as noble as any other. Whatever the cause, it meant that Sleeman’s men were more often than not met with silence as they probed residents for information.
But a few factors were in Sleeman's favor. First, the Thugs’ beliefs forbade them from killing certain groups, including women, fakirs, musicians, lepers—and Europeans. Thuggee was thus unable to retaliate against its English persecutors even when it had the opportunity. Second, once captured, most Thugs cooperated with authorities willingly—one might even say gleefully. Staunch fatalists, the imprisoned Thugs believed their situation was the result of their displeasing the goddess. They therefore showed little remorse in turning in their brothers, believing that anything that happened to them would be the will of Kali. Some suspect that Thuggee prisoners even deliberately accused innocent men; unable to strangle in person during their incarceration, sending men to the gallows was a convenient way of keeping up their obligation to Kali. As for those condemned to die, it is said that each went to his death with no trace of emotion, often requesting only that he be allowed to place the noose around his own neck.
With informants pouring in at an ever-increasing rate, Sleeman’s campaign against the Thugs gained ground beyond anyone’s expectations. Within a few years the cult was crippled, and by the end of the 19th century the British declared Thuggee extinct. Sleeman was hailed as a hero by most of India, and in many parts of the country he is still revered.
World's First Flying Car Enters Production
In a moment we've been waiting for since the first time we saw The Jetsons, the first flying car has finally gone on sale. Just like the car George uses to drop off the kids, the Moller M200G Volantor is shaped like a saucer. To avoid the need to pass FAA regulations, the civilian version of the Volantor is restricted to heights of 10 feet, but can travel as fast as 50mph and fly for up to 90minutes. Military or rescue versions could be unencumbered by such limitations. Depending on the number of orders, prices could be as low as $90,000. Video of the Volantor in action after the jump.
The Moller M200 Flying Car
Moller, better known for the yet-to-reach-production Skycar, have already started work on the 67 orders received so far. They envision uses including extreme off roading - the Volantor is unencumbered by any ground-based obstacles - or as a ferry between a yacht and the land. In the long run, they'd like to see the vehicle used as the ultimate congestion busting commuter. Maximum payload is 250 pounds, so you'll need to buy one for each adult member of the family.
The company is actively seeking military or government clients, who they suggest could use the vehicle for anything from skyscraper rescues to fire fighting.
Oscar the cat seems to have an uncanny knack for predicting when nursing home patients are going to die, by curling up next to them during their final hours. His accuracy, observed in 25 cases, has led the staff to call family members once he has chosen someone. It usually means they have less than four hours to live.
"He doesn't make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die," said Dr. David Dosa in an interview. He describes the phenomenon in a poignant essay in Thursday's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
"Many family members take some solace from it. They appreciate the companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved one," said Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor of medicine at Brown University.
The 2-year-old feline was adopted as a kitten and grew up in a third-floor dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The facility treats people with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses.
After about six months, the staff noticed Oscar would make his own rounds, just like the doctors and nurses. He'd sniff and observe patients, then sit beside people who would wind up dying in a few hours.
Dosa said Oscar seems to take his work seriously and is generally aloof. "This is not a cat that's friendly to people," he said.
Oscar is better at predicting death than the people who work there, said Dr. Joan Teno of Brown University, who treats patients at the nursing home and is an expert on care for the terminally ill
She was convinced of Oscar's talent when he made his 13th correct call. While observing one patient, Teno said she noticed the woman wasn't eating, was breathing with difficulty and that her legs had a bluish tinge, signs that often mean death is near.
Oscar wouldn't stay inside the room though, so Teno thought his streak was broken. Instead, it turned out the doctor's prediction was roughly 10 hours too early. Sure enough, during the patient's final two hours, nurses told Teno that Oscar joined the woman at her bedside.
Doctors say most of the people who get a visit from the sweet-faced, gray-and-white cat are so ill they probably don't know he's there, so patients aren't aware he's a harbinger of death. Most families are grateful for the advanced warning, although one wanted Oscar out of the room while a family member died. When Oscar is put outside, he paces and meows his displeasure.
No one's certain if Oscar's behavior is scientifically significant or points to a cause. Teno wonders if the cat notices telltale scents or reads something into the behavior of the nurses who raised him.
Nicholas Dodman, who directs an animal behavioral clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and has read Dosa's article, said the only way to know is to carefully document how Oscar divides his time between the living and dying.
If Oscar really is a furry grim reaper, it's also possible his behavior could be driven by self-centered pleasures like a heated blanket placed on a dying person, Dodman said.
Nursing home staffers aren't concerned with explaining Oscar, so long as he gives families a better chance at saying goodbye to the dying.
Oscar recently received a wall plaque publicly commending his "compassionate hospice care."
Talk about a tough act to follow. The robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been exploring Mars' rocky landscape for more than 1,200 Martian days — much longer than any previous robot to touch down on the Red Planet.
Originally designed to last only three months, Spirit and Opportunity have continued functioning for 14 times that duration. They have survived to see not just one, but three, landing anniversaries. The hardy rovers have helped scientists make numerous amazing discoveries, the most notable of which was that liquid water once existed there, encouraging the continued search for signs of life on the Red Planet.
"They've spectacularly surpassed all expectations for what they were going to do," said Michael Meyers, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
The robots' sojourn on Mars has not been trouble-free, however, and they have more than once overcome obstacles that could have ended the mission. Opportunity, in particular, has proven to be an especially tough trooper. It dug itself out of a sandy "purgatory dune" in the summer of 2005. Now, both rovers are struggling to survive one of the most severe episodes of dust-storm darkening ever observed on Mars.
The rovers' knack for overcoming obstacles and exceeding expectations are legendary and has endeared them to the dozens of researchers who have used data beamed back by the pair to reveal many of Mars' secrets.
The rovers' leading scientific achievements include snapping images of twisted rocks and smooth pebbles shaped by water; cooperating to create the first temperature profile of Mars' atmosphere; and revealing that Earthlike clouds also drift across the Martian skies.
Given the rovers' track record, scientists are optimistic that the rolling robots will successfully weather the latest Martian dust storms.
"These are hardy robust vehicles that are very capable, so I think given time we'll get through this," said John Callas, project manager for the Mars Exploration Rovers project.
Scientists predict, however, that it could be weeks before Mars' dust-clogged air clears.
"In order for us to really resume full scientific operations, even at a reduced rate, we need to have the dust opacity drop by a bit from what we've been seeing," said the rover team’s lead scientist, Steve Squyres of Cornell University. "How long it will take to drop to that level, we cannot predict."
Before the dust storms began, Opportunity was poised to descend into Victoria Crater and Spirit was investigating silica-rich soil that could provide even more evidence of Mars' water-rich past.
"As soon as conditions allow, we'll pick that up again," Callas said