Tuesday, August 1, 2000


A Thug in Hyderabad
By Narendra Luther

Since its founding in 1591, many persons from different walks of life - both Indians and foreign - have given glowing testimonials to the city of Hyderabad. Amongst them are Ferishta, the Persian historian; Tavernier, a dealer in diamonds; Thevenot, a linguist; Bernier a physician and Abbe Carre a priest – all French. Others were Manucci, an Italian physician, Schoerer, a Dutch factor in the Dutch East Indian Company and Methwold, an Englishman in its British rival company. Except Ferishta who wrote sitting at Bijapur, they all visited Golconda in the 17th century. Another Frenchman, Modave, an army officer, visited Hyderabad in the 18th century.


In the 19th century, a ‘thug’ joined this gallery of notables. ‘Thuggee’ was extensively practiced all over India in the 18th and early 19th century. Its practitioners both Hindus and Muslims worshipped the goddess Bhawani and observed many Hindus rituals. Their modus operandi was to break the neck of the victim by throwing a handkerchief, one end of which had a coin tied to it, around the neck of the victim. It was an instant and painless death. Travelers, merchants, and soldiers were befriended by the thugs and murdered in cold blood. Lord William Bentinck, Governor-General of India (1828-35) banned thugee and charged Captain Sleeman with the task of rooting it out from the country. According to Moorehouse Geoffrey, in five yeas more than 3000 thugs were convicted.

Amongst them was one Ameer Ali. He was one of the notorious leaders of a gang of thugs who operated in Central and Western India. His life was spared when he turned an approver. On his own admission made by him when he was about forty, he was responsible for the death of 719 persons. And his boast was that if he had not been in jail for the last 12 years (at the time of making his confessions) the number would have been a thousand! Meadows Taylor who was an Assistant Resident in Hyderabad recorded his ‘confessions’. They were first published in England in 1839.

Ameer Ali belonged to a prosperous family. Thugs had murdered his parents. The leader of that gang, Ismail, who was childless, spared Ameer Ali and adopted him. Ameer Ali then about five, grew into a strong and fearless lad and while still in his teens was initiated into thugee.

Ameer Ali in Hyderabad

He came to Hyderabad on his very first expedition when he was barely out of his teens. Nizam III (1803-29) was the ruler of Hyderabad. On his way to Hyderabad he had rescued a dancing girl Zora by name from the captivity of the Nawab of Adilabad. He brought her to Hyderabad and restored her to her old mother - and to their profession. His compensation was a mere night of pleasure with her.

Ameer Ali came to Hyderabad via Alwal and he describes the temple and the village tank. In the background of the Hussain Sagar Lake, he saw the glittering encampment of the British army.

He had heard much about the lake from many persons on his journey, “and as we passed it a strong breeze had arisen, and the surface was curled into a thousand waves, whose white crests as they broke sparkled like diamonds, and threw their spray into our faces as they dashed against the stone work of the embankment. We stood a long time gazing upon the beautiful prospect, so new to us all, and wondering whether the sea, of which we had heard so much, could be anything like what was before us.”

Then he saw Naubat Pahad in front of him and spurred his horse to climb it so that he could get a glimpse of the city. “Beneath lay Hyderabad, the object of many a conjecture, of many an ardent desire to reach it - the first city of the Dukhun justly celebrated throughout the countries I had passed.”

Of all the visitors to the city, he is the only one to have noticed and described the Banjara Hills - “rude rocky hills” on his right which “on the left appeared gradually to descend into a plain, which stretched away almost uninterruptedly to the horizon. Before me, on the gentle rise of the valley, and beyond where I supposed the river to be, lay the city, its white terraced houses gleaming brightly in the sunlight from amidst what seemed to me at the distance almost a forest of trees. The Char Minar and Mecca Musjid rose proudly from the masses of buildings by which they were surrounded.” He also observed white smaller mosques “ in hundreds.”

“The city seemed to be of immense extent; but I thought from the number of trees that it was composed principally of gardens and inclosures, and was much surprised afterwards, when I entered it, to find its streets so filed with houses, and the whole so thickly peopled.”

When Ameer Ali entered the city with his companions, the Char Minar, ‘burst at once upon our view’. Its minarets seemed to pierce the clouds. ‘To see this alone is worth a journey from Delhi.’

Ameer Ali is also the only one to have described the Qutb Shahi tombs near the Golconda Fort. This place is unique in the sense that the entire dynasty (except for the last ruler) lies together in one necropolis. The occasion to visit this out-of-the-way place was provided by Ameer Ali’s handsomeness and chivalry. A young beautiful woman, Azima, who, married to an old debauch had seen Ameer Ali ride by when she was lounging in her balcony. Struck at first sight, she sent her maid after him and besought him to rescue her.

To cut a long story short, they decided to elope and agreed to meet the next morning at the dargah of Shah Wali near the tombs. Ameer Ali reached the rendezvous on time but Azima was delayed. To while away the time the thug decided to see the tombs, which suddenly appeared, on his right. “Astonished at their size and magnificence even from that distance”, inside, he found “the silence and desolation were oppressive ... some of them dark and gloomy and filled with bats and wild pigeons, whose cooing re-echoed within the lofty domes

Though constituting the third wave of visitors and in the third century after the founding of Hyderabad, Ameer Ali confirms the observations of the earlier travellers and chroniclers about the garden-city character for the city, its richness, and the splendour of its monuments.

His account is fascinating partly because of his romantic escapades set in the city.

Incidentally, Azima did keep the rendezvous. They got married and she proved a very good wife and bore him a son. And, if a thug’s word can be believed in these matters, he was faithful to her and they lived happily ever after - that is for about ten years till he was caught and put in jail. She never knew about the nature of his job and when she learnt about it on his arrest, she committed suicide.

‘Confessions’ is actually a novel and Taylor seems to have used this format to describe Hyderabad as he saw it. Though seemingly fiction, it is an important source material on the history of Hyderabad - and of India.

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