To mark Disney's remake of The Jungle Book, Lonely Planet travels 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 magnificent 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.
Where to find Kipling's jungle
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.
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.
Inside the confines of the park itself, humans are strictly observers. Guests prowl the rugged terrain in little 4x4s known by their model name, Gypsy, with their local driver-guides alert to any possible sightings. Langur monkeys, Kipling’s Bandar-log (Hindi for ‘monkey people’), gather in chattering crowds and are usually found with herds of sambar and spotted deer, with whom they have forged a friendship. The monkeys’ guttural alarm call warns grazing deer to potential predators, and fruit and berries dropped from the branches supplements their otherwise grass-heavy diet.
Although in Kipling’s stories monkeys made their home in an abandoned stone city known as Cold Lairs, Satpura’s simians tend to give their own ancient rubble a wide berth. Tucked away in the far corner of the park is a temple devoted to the deity Shiva and fallen to ruin, a dead ringer for King Louie’s palace in Disney’s The Jungle Book film – complete with intricate carvings of dancing figures, bael trees growing through its foundations and columns on the verge of collapse.
Thought to be 300-400 years old, it was built here by the Gond people, central India’s largest tribe, who before adopting Hinduism practised their own animist religion. They believed that non-human entities such as plants and animals possess a spiritual essence – a view seemingly shared by Kipling himself.
The sloth bear’s spiritual essence is most accurately summarised by the cartoon Bagheera, who in the film affectionately describes his friend as a ‘jungle bum’. Dishevelled-looking and unkempt, sloth bears feed predominantly on termites, opening up nests with great sickle-shaped claws and hoovering up resident insects through their long snouts.
Unlike the elusive tigers and leopards that also roam the forest, real-life Baloos are considerably easier to track down. They stumble noisily from the undergrowth, sometimes carrying cubs on their backs. Like giant furballs on legs, they are disconcertingly featureless, their jet-black eyes and wet noses almost lost amid a dark and shaggy mane of fur.
The creature everyone wants to catch a glimpse of on a visit to this region is the one Kipling called ‘the Big One’, Shere Khan. Nearby Tadoba National Park, in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, has the highest density of Bengal tigers in all the country, and sightings are almost guaranteed. Tracking one down means enlisting the help of someone properly attuned to the rhythms of the jungle.
By his own admission, wildlife guide Himanshu Bagde is not unlike a grown-up version of Kipling’s hero – if Mowgli had swapped his loincloth for a shirt and tie. ‘Since I was a boy, I have always loved nature. Not just animals, but trees and birds… the aura of the forest,’ says Himanshu. ‘For a short while I worked for a pharmaceutical company, but in the end I decided I must obey my heart – and my heart is always in the jungle.’
A pair of binoculars around his neck, Himanshu scans the undergrowth from a 4x4 as it races along Tadoba’s dusty, pothole-ridden paths, bathing its occupants in a fine red mist. The menthol scent of the herb hoary basil carries on the breeze. To track his quarry, Himanshu listens for the alarm calls of big-cat prey: the hoot of startled sambar deer or the distress call of a grey junglefowl, squawking like a squeezed chicken.
It’s dawn and the forest is cool, the sun not yet fully penetrating the thick canopy of bamboo and teak. Each time one safari vehicle passes another, both drivers slow to confer – sometimes clues are offered wordlessly: a mysterious series of gestures that Himanshu explains as we tear away. A big, claw-shaped hand means a tiger; a smaller one is a leopard – a flick of the wrist shows that whatever is under discussion has left. ‘Guides and rangers communicate constantly,’ he says. ‘Each piece of information builds a bigger picture. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.’
As we roam the forest in search of the final piece, nature offers unexpected scenes of drama: spider webs the size of bed sheets that billow in the breeze like washing on a line, the slender tail of a retreating leopard, terrifying a gaur who crashes through the trees with eyes wide in alarm, huge horns ready for a fight.
Stopping by the roadside to examine a set of fresh tracks, we’re joined by a pair of fox-like dholes: much rarer than tigers, in Kipling’s stories these pack hunters are the jungle’s most ferocious predators. With each game drive, more neglected skills return: it becomes instinctive to sniff the air for the smell of a recent kill, peer into the shadows for a glimpse of stripy fur, strain ears to the sound of an alarm call. In our search for a hunter, we have ourselves become hunters.
The animal everyone is seeking seems reluctant to be found, but on a final drive in Tadoba, suddenly there she is: a tigress called Maya. Peering out from the long grass, she gives the vehicle a cursory glance and alters course, creeping towards a watering hole. She pads silently, slips into the black water with barely a ripple or splash, and swims past great green lily pads with her nose held high.
Reaching the bank, she shakes water from her stripes before disappearing again into the grass. Himanshu seems electrified by her presence. ‘We have more than 70 tigers in the park, but Maya is my favourite,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to describe the feeling I get when I see her, but it’s a powerful connection. I feel drawn to her. I love her like a member of my family.’
Maya’s name means ‘illusion’ in Hindi, and it is indeed as though her appearance has distorted our senses. Our glimpse of her is over, the jungle falling rapidly under the cloak of darkness, but her image lingers in the mind: fusing with Kipling’s fictional tiger, Shere Khan, until the two become one.
Mumbai: mother city
A sharp thwack sends the leather ball soaring over the grass of Mumbai's Oval Maidan, players in cricket whites tracking it across a blue sky. In the background is a clock tower strikingly like Big Ben. Were it not for the palm trees, searing heat and Hindi pop music blaring from a portable stereo, this could be an English village green. Cricket is, understandably, one of the few bequests of British rule that Indians have clung to with enthusiasm. But vestiges of the Raj, which lasted from 1858 until the country’s independence in 1947, are everywhere in this city.
None is more imposing than Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, known as Victoria Terminus when it was completed in 1888, and still mostly referred to by its old nickname, ‘VT’. Cathedral-like in its preponderance of buttresses and spires, gargoyles and stained glass, its Gothic façade is passed by an endless stream of traffic: old yellow and black Padmini taxis, mopeds and flash SUVs, all united in a chorus of honking.
Inside, windows cast spotlights on passengers exiting trains packed to three times their intended capacity: among them a barefoot man with a basket of vegetables balanced on his head, a pair of schoolgirls with pigtailed hair and smart blue uniforms, a woman in a yellow silk sari and high heels. It is one of many of the city’s British legacies repurposed to serve a now-thriving independent nation – at the Gateway of India, a massive basalt monument to colonial triumph, domestic tourists and student groups congregate taking selfies.
When Kipling was born in the city in 1865, it was called Bombay. The building which replaced the home where he was born – on the grounds of the Sir JJ Institute of Applied Art, of which his artist father Sir John Lockwood Kipling was then dean – still stands.
Tucked away in a place Kipling described as ‘between the palms and the sea’, the once-grand house sits in a quiet grove full of mango, guava and fig trees hung with sleeping fruit bats. Its sea-green paint is peeled and flaking, and a peek through filthy windows reveals ornate mosaiced floors stacked high with old newspapers and broken furniture. Crows make their nests inside broken drainpipes and pockmarked latticed screens.
The crumbling building is symbolic of India’s complex relationship with the writer – viewed by some as a propagandist for the imperial machine, by others as the country’s most faithful chronicler. Although the building has heritage status, no-one knows quite what to do with it – for now the only thing that marks its significance is a bust of Kipling, complete with his trademark walrus moustache.
Mumbai tour guide Chitra Acharya eyes it with interest – she has visited this place before with British clients, and is ambivalent about its preservation. ‘My grandparents were freedom fighters, so I have always valued our country’s independence,’ she says. ‘But in our culture, when someone dies, your animosity to that person must die with them.’
Chitra, like most Indians, knows Kipling’s The Jungle Book stories from a cartoon – a later Hindi TV series that is better known here than the Disney film. But Kipling’s work is still taught in schools, and parents can pick up a cheap copy of his classic works from the booksellers of Hutatma Chowk (Martyrs’ Square).
Dwarfed by towers of paperbacks, these men are like amateur librarians, able to lay their hands on a requested title, whether it be Fifty Shades of Grey or Ten Deadly Marketing Sins; one of Rhonda Byrne’s self-help books or a copy of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines. These well-thumbed books and authors speak volumes about the ways Mumbai’s readers have changed in the 150 years since the city gave us Kipling.
Shimla, a little England
Tea is being served on the 5.30am Shivalik Deluxe Express to Shimla, a uniformed conductor passing along the carriage with a kettle and biscuits. The rhythm of the train has lulled some passengers to sleep, but most are gazing out of the windows. The narrow-gauge track incorporates 917 curves, 988 bridges and 103 tunnels, each prefixing a new view: a terraced farm, ramshackle village, or sweep of alpine forest. There are stops at miniature stations where street food vendors sell spicy potato cakes, before the train arrives, five hours later, in the foothills of the Himalayas.
It may seem slow, but the Kalka–Shimla railway, built by the British in 1903, vastly improved access to what was by then the official summer capital of the Raj. When Kipling covered ‘the season’ as a young news reporter in the 1880s, the journey from Calcutta took five days.
Nevertheless, so committed were India’s colonial rulers to escaping the heat of the plains, they were willing to endure the trip, bringing their entourage of administrative staff, wives, children and servants along with them. Their reward was cool air that reminded them of home, and scenery that was very much other: endless snow-capped peaks as pale as paper.
The seat of power was the bombastic Viceregal Lodge, which has the look of a forbidding public school. Built in 1888 on one of Shimla’s highest hills, it was a symbol of empire. At the height of his powers, the viceroy employed 800 staff, including 40 gardeners tasked with maintaining its fine lawns to tennis-party standard, and 16 devoted monkey chasers.
As Kipling observed, Shimla was also a centre of pleasure. Then, as now, those seeking amusement headed for the town’s winding main street, Mall Road. It still has a carnival atmosphere. Indian tourists stroll around eating ice-cream, or pay a few rupees to have their photo taken while wearing traditional Himalayan costume.
The main focus of social life during Kipling’s time was the Gaiety Theatre, its recently restored auditorium like a miniature green and gold version of London’s Royal Albert Hall. Here, an amateur dramatic society performed a varied repertoire, from Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw.
In a back room there’s a display of period photographs, annotated with the names of various players (Capt Finlay, Miss Sinclair, Mrs Windsor), a rogues’ gallery of men in drag, girls draped in leopard fur and the occasional prosthetic nose.
‘It is important to preserve these relics – we are proud of our shared British-Indian heritage,’ says Rajendra Gautam, the Gaiety’s historian. ‘But don’t think of this place as a museum. It is still used today for musical performances, and by the many local dramatic and theatrical companies. There are 15, just in Shimla! These days everyone except me is an actor.’ The very first play staged here, a comic farce called Time Will Tell in 1887, starred Kipling himself. ‘By all accounts he did it rather badly,’ says Rajendra. ‘I’m afraid Rudyard Kipling was not as good an actor as he was a writer.’
This article appeared in the April 2016 edition of Lonely Planet Traveller magazine. Orla Thomas travelled to India with support from Wild Frontiers, who offer several tailor-made itineraries in the country, including a Kipling’s India tour (wildfrontierstravel.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.