Seeonee: The Site of Mowgli’s Jungle?

(by John Slater)


0n 9th August 1892, after a truncated honeymoon, Rudyard Kipling and his wife Caroline arrived at her family home in Brattleboro,Vermont where they were to live for some four years. In the first eighteen months he wrote The Jungle Book which was published in May 1894.

The first story of The Jungle Book is “Mowgli’s Brothers” which describes the entry of the infant Mowgli into his wolf family. Originally this tale was set in Rajputana [now Rajasthan], an area that Kipling knew very well and had described in Letters of Marque. However before publication he moved the site to an area in the Central Provinces [now Madhya Pradesh] named after a small town called Seoni. (see the Map of ‘Kipling’s India’)This was an area which Kipling never visited but he had friends who had gone there on vacation.














Kipling described Mowgli’s jungle whilst sitting at his desk in Vermont supported by a number of relevant reference books.  He was writing fiction and can only be described as ‘a creator of myths’ in the sense that the term could also be applied to the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

However by moving the site of Mowgli’s jungle to an area he had never seen he was unwittingly creating a situation in which two substantial myths were able to rise and flourish. The two myths and the truth about them have both emerged very slowly over very many years causing much speculation and debate in the Kipling world.

Nineteenth Century Origins of the Story

In November 1882 the sixteen-year-old Rudyard Kipling left school in England and rejoined his parents in Lahore where he was to start work on the Civil & Military Gazette as Deputy Editor. Five years later he was transferred to its sister paper in Allahabad, the Pioneer. Initially he stayed at the Allahabad Club; in due course he met and became close friends with the American Mrs. Edmonia (‘Ted’) Hill and her English husband Professor Alexander (Aleck) who was an astronomer and meteorologist teaching in Allahabad. The fact that the Hills visited Seoni in 1888, and that Aleck Hill was a very serious amateur photographer played a significant role in the creation of the second myth.

On 3rd March 1889 Kipling and the Hills embarked on the SS Madura. At Penang Kipling (and presumably the Hills) visited ‘the Waterfalls, which are five miles away from ‘Penang Town’ [correctly Georgetown]’. Kipling described this visit in what became Chapter IV of From Sea to Sea. The trip involved a climb in the tropical heat that was clearly very exhausting. The mention of ‘a tiny gorge’ is followed by ‘a small stream coursing down the face of a rock, and a much bigger one down my own’. It seems almost certain that this excursion has some connection with the dramatic falls known as the ‘Bee Rocks’ that figure in the story “Red Dog” in The Second Jungle Book.

From Singapore the group journeyed via Hong Kong and Canton to Japan. Kipling then spent some four months touring the United States, and in September 1888 set sail for England. After staying for a few days with his maternal aunt and her husband, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Kipling settled into Embankment Chambers [now ‘Kipling Chambers’] near Charing Cross station.

This is perhaps the point to draw the reader’s attention to the rather curious first occurrences of the word ‘Seonee’ in Kipling’s published works. In both the novels he wrote in London in those years, The Light that Failed and The Naulahka (written with Wolcott Balestier), nearly every chapter is headed by a few lines of verse, usually by Kipling but sometimes taken from other poets such as Longfellow, Walter Scott and James Thomson (author of “The City of Dreadful Night”).

In almost every case these lines of verse are followed by a title or some other pendant attached at the bottom. In three instances this attachment reads ‘In Seonee’. The first occurrence is at the head of Chapter IV in The Light that Failed. The verse of seven lines begins: ‘The wolf-cub at even lay hid in the corn’, and continues in that vein. On the face of it the insertion would not be out of place in The Jungle Book but its relevance to The Light that Failed is unclear. The same phrase also appears twice below the lines of verse in The Naulahka at the heads of chapters XII (five lines) and XIX (fifteen lines). In both cases the verses contain the phrase ‘Gods of the East’ but the connection with ‘Seonee’ is very far from obvious.

The normal spelling of the town was then and is now ‘Seoni’; that is how it appears in the Imperial Gazetteer of India (Vol.14) published in 1887; there is no mention of ‘Seonee’ as an alternative. However in 1877 an autobiographical novel, Seonee or My Life on the Satpura Range by Robert Armitage Sterndale was published; it seems very likely that Kipling took his initial spelling from that book which was later to become one of a number of books (including two others by Sterndale) he had by him when writing The Jungle Book.

In January 1892, after the sudden death of Wolcott Balestier from typhoid fever, Rudyard married Wolcott’s sister Caroline. On February 2nd 1892 they embarked on a round-the-world honeymoon. Due to the failure of the New Oriental Bank Corporation on 9th June (and possibly because Carrie was already pregnant) the trip was curtailed in Tokyo. On August 9th the couple arrived at Carrie’s home in Brattleboro, Vermont. Over the next two years Many Inventions was published, the two Jungle Books were both written and published, and a new house (‘Naulakha’) was built and occupied.

The first – or last – Mowgli story

Carrie Kipling tells us that on February 2nd 1893 Rudyard was correcting “In the Rukh”. Throughout the marriage she kept a diary partially recording Rudyard’s work-in-progress and also some domestic events. The diary itself was destroyed after Carrie’s death by her daughter but not before the official biographer, Charles Carrington, had been allowed to make notes from it. This and other quoted dates come from these notes.) As this tale was published in Many Inventions in May 1893 this must be a reference to the final page proofs.
In the Rukh was the first story about Mowgli to be published. It is not about the well-known child but about a young adult who, having rejoined the world of Men, contemplates marriage and a job in the Indian Forestry Service with its eventual pension. The story is set in an unspecified Forest Reserve in northern India, an area that Kipling knew well.

Mowgli’s four wolf brothers figure in the story, though in the introductory verse they are referred to as ‘playmates twain that bit me to the bone’. The discrepancy of number may be due to an oversight at the final proofing stage.

According to Carrie Kipling’s diary the first story about Mowgli as a child, “Mowgli’s Brothers”, was finished on 29th November 1893. Over the years this story has been the first introduction to Mowgli and his wolf brothers for the great majority of readers. It first appeared in print in the St. Nicholas Magazine of January 1894 and four months later in The Jungle Book itself.

There has been some debate about when and where “In the Rukh” was originally written. Professor Charles Carrington (Kipling’s biographer) had a belief that it was written after “Mowgli’s Brothers”, implying that the latter had been hanging around for a long time.

However, when “In the Rukh” was reprinted in McClure’s Magazine of June 1896 Kipling added a preface in which he attempted to reconcile the apparent improbabilities. He wrote:

This tale … was the first written of the Mowgli stories, though it deals with the closing (sic) chapters of his career. Those who know the geography of India will see that it is a far cry from Seeonee to a Northern Forest Reserve; but though many curious things must have befallen Mowgli, we have no certain record of his adventures during those wanderings. There are, however, legends.

The setting of “Mowgli’s Brothers”

On 29th December 1892 the Kiplings’ first child, Josephine, was born. For this event Carrie had brought in a family friend, Susan Bishop, to act as a nurse and help around the house. During February 1893 Kipling gave her, as a mark of appreciation, an early draft manuscript of “Mowgli’s Brothers” telling her ‘it was to sell when she was hard up’. (Louise Russell Carpenter, p. 61) She did sell it and it is now in the Carpenter Collection at the Library of Congress.

From the Bishop manuscript we know that “Mowgli’s Brothers” was originally set in the Aravulli [now Aravalli] hills area of Rajputana, perhaps some three hundred miles south-south-west of the site of “In the Rukh”. However, before publication changes were made. The opening sentence of “Mowgli’s Brothers” read:

It was about seven o’clock of a very warm evening among the Aravulli hills when the Father Wolf woke up from his day’s sleep scratched himself yawned and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepiness in their tips.

This was replaced by:

It was seven o’clock of a very warm evening among the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day’s rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips.

The observant reader will have noticed that Kipling had added a fourth ‘e’ to the ‘Seonee’ that had figured in The Light That Failed and The Naulahka.
Other changes from the Bishop manuscript are:

Shere Khan was the tiger who lived near a branch of the Bunas River twenty miles away.


Shere Khan was the tiger who lived near the Waingunga River, twenty miles away.

and the statement by Bagheera the black panther:

‘And yet, little Brother, I was born among men and it was among men that my mother died – in the cages of the palace at Oodeypore, a week’s hunting from here.’

lost its last five words.

Substantial other changes to the wording and punctuation had also been made but most importantly the site of Mowgli’s jungle had been moved from Rajputana some 400 miles south-east to the ‘Seeonee’ hills in the Central Provinces a site which is some 550 miles south of the site of “In the Rukh”. Kipling knew Rajputana very well and had written about it, but as stated above he never visited Seoni.

The distance between the three sites and the time-span of the stories produced some minor anomalies that were not eliminated. The length of Bagheera’s trek from the ‘cages of Oodeypore’ [now Udaipur] in Rajputana to Seeonee is somewhat unlikely as is the journey of Mowgli and his four wolf brothers from Seeonee to the Northern forest, particularly as we are told in “In the Rukh” that: ‘I came from over there’, he flung out an arm towards the north’. . There is also a slight temporal problem in that Mowgli’s brothers must have been blessed with a life span far beyond that of the normal wolf.

In writing The Jungle Book Kipling at his desk in Vermont described an area which he had never seen. He had beside him a number of reference books including his father Lockwood Kipling’s recently published Beast and Man in India and a number of other very substantial tomes including, most importantly, the books by R.A.Sterndale mentioned above. [Kipling later set part of his story “The Tomb of his Ancestors” (The Day’s Work 1898) in the Satpura Hills, near Seoni.]

“Mowgli’s Brothers” first appeared in the St. Nicholas Magazine of January 1894. The Jungle Book itself appeared that May and was followed by The Second Jungle Book in October 1895.

Kipling was writing fiction and can not be accused of creating myths. However he was unwittingly creating a situation in which two very strong and persistent myths were able to form and survive for many years.

The first was that in writing about Seoni Kipling was describing an area he knew well and, at its most extreme at the end of the twentieth century, involved the story that Kipling had lived there for months while writing The Jungle Books.

The second myth was that Professor Hill’s photographs of the area played a significant part in Kipling’s move of the site from Rajasthan to Seoni. This can be traced back to a footnote in Carrington’s biography (p. 209). The full truth has emerged very slowly over nearly a hundred years.


©John Slater 2007 All rights reserved