Kipling's Jungle: Fact or Fancy ?



(by Rhona Ghate)



[Feb 21 2007]

This article appeared in December 1960 in 'The March of India', Vol. XII, No. 12, Dec 1960, a periodical published in Delhi by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

I recently visited the little district of Seoni in Madhya Pradesh, which is the ostensible setting of the Jungle Books. On the road from Nagpur to Jubbulpur, this pleasant and largely undeveloped upland forms part of the Satpura Range which sprawls across Central India. The River Waingunga winds and twists its way through it, just as in the Mowgli stories; and the village of Khanhiwara, where Mowgli's foster-mother took refuge, is a real village on the Seoni-Mandla road.

But what of Mowgli's other haunts, the Council Rock, where his brothers the wolves used to meet; the Peace Pool, where all the animals came in times of drought; his own village; and the rest? Anxious to track them down, I started by going to the little Seoni Club, and there, sure enough, hung an old map, showing all the land-marks of the Jungle Books, and even bordered by photographs of them. When I enquired about its origin, I was directed to a missionary who was an old resident of Seoni. From him I learnt that the map had been made by a former British Forest officer, who had taken great pains to work out distances and positions from indications in the Mowgli stories, and had identified, as he thought, all these spots.

But, alas, when he sent the result of his labours to Kipling, who was then still living, he received a reply (as my informant remembered it:

I should be the last to deny the accuracy of your geography, but in fact I never went to Seoni.
That in fact Kipling had no first-hand knowledge of Seoni, though from 1887-89 he lived in Allahabad, some 300 miles to the north, is confirmed by his official biographer, Charles Carrington.

Are then the Waingunga and Seoni just names planted on an imaginary landscape, and the jungle a generalised picture of the Indian jungle? It seems not. For though Kipling never saw Seoni himself, he had a pretty good second-hand knowledge of it, which he deliberately used for his setting, although he actually wrote the jungle stories in America three years after leaving India.

According to the missionary, Kipling's reply to the maker of the map continued:

I got it all from Sterndale's Gazetteer.
Sterndale, who was a district officer in the mid-nineteenth century, wrote a book called Seeonee, or Camp Life on the Satpura Range (1877), not exactly a 'gazetteer' but based on his own residence in Seoni from 1857-64. Purporting to recount the experiences of a couple of British district officers, one an experienced shikari and the other a greenhorn straight from England, it gives a vivid picture of Seoni as a wild, tiger infested country at about the time of the Mutiny (1857). Perhaps this explains why Kipling chose this setting rather than a forest of the North which he knew at first hand.

Anyhow, the fact that the maker of the map could find a rock, a gorge, a village and all the rest that fitted in so well with Kipling's description, speaks for the general accuracy of the topography. And certainly, visiting Seoni today, one is struck by the truth of the background. The district is still, as Kipling described it, a mixture of cultivated land, forest, and bare stony wasteland. There are still any number of hills that answer the description of the wolves' Council Rock: 'a hilltop covered with stones and boulders where a hundred wolves could hide'. And the forest is still extensive enough to provide some of the best hunting blocks in Central India.

The River Wainganga too is as Kipling describes it, long deep pools alternating with stony rapids; and the great granite cliffs over which Mowgli drove the wild dogs to their death are there, haunted, as in the stories, by wild bees.

[Miss Ghate goes on after this to talk of the animals described in the Jungle Books and those still to be seen in Seoni, and adds that it is in the heart of the aboriginal Gond country - which, of course, supports the appearance of a Gond in "The King's Ankus" in The Second Jungle Book. Ed. ]




[R.G.]

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