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Digital Subscriptions > Lonely Planet Traveller (UK) > April 2016 > The Real Jungle Book

The Real Jungle Book

As the remake of the classic animated flm prepares to open in cinemas, we travel to the forested heart of India that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s original Mowgli stories. Exploring the life of the writer who almost single-handedly conjured the popular image of ‚British India’, we look at the legacy of the Raj in other locations close to his heart: from the magnifcent architecture of Mumbai – where he was born in 1865 – to the hill station of Shimla, former summer capital and colonialist playground, in the foothills of the Himalayas

We all know Kipling’s jungle. Whether you first encountered it in the pages of his short stories, or found it in Disney’s adaptation, you are no doubt familiar with its steamy layers of leaves, its sun-warmed pools, its ancient temples overrun by monkeys and creeping vines. It is the living backdrop for a cast of animal characters whose names are as familiar to us as childhood toys – from the sleepy brown sloth bear Baloo to the fearsome tiger Shere Khan; the panther Bagheera, his voice ‘soft as wild honey’, and the quixotic python Kaa. And of course it is home to Mowgli, the orphaned man-cub raised by wolves.

A boy from one of the villages located in the ‘buffer zone’ surrounding Satpura National Park takes a stroll in the jungle

With the possible exception of a resident wolf-boy, the jungle so vividly described in Kipling’s fiction does indeed exist – but it was not a place the writer knew himself. Although he spent most of his twenties in India, he never visited the central region where his stories were set, and only began writing them after he had moved to Vermont in 1892. Kipling borrowed his jungle from a fellow Britisher – a district officer who published a contemporary account of his years spent living in the Satpura Range, and enlivened it with his own imagination.

Satpura National Park, in the modern-day state of Madhya Pradesh, derives its name from the same set of sprawling hills. The landscape that surrounds it echoes the one conjured in The Jungle Book – dense forest is edged by small hamlets like Nayapura, where villagers live in simple mud huts, colourful saris hanging from home-made washing lines. Subsistence farmers tend fields of rice and maize, and collect the fruits of the forest to make a little extra money. In this buffer zone where Satpura’s human and animal inhabitants coexist, there are occasional clashes over precious local resources. Both are keen on the fleshy edible flowers of the mahua tree, and as villagers tend to pick them in the half-light of dawn, they occasionally surprise the notoriously short-sighted and slightly deaf sloth bears, inadvertently provoking an attack.

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