The character of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” a collection of stories originally published in 1894, is abandoned by his human family in the jungles of India before being taken in by a pack of wolves. As the “man cub” goes on adventures, befriending bears and panthers, fighting monkeys and snakes, he struggles to find his place in the world. Does he belong with the humans in the village? Or with the animals in the jungle?
Kipling’s imaginative story was famously turned into an animated adventure by Walt Disney Studios in 1967 and has since been remade and reimagined a number of times.
While Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” is undoubtedly a work of fiction, the author may have drawn some inspiration from the real-life story of a “feral man” named Dina Sanichar.
The Real Life Mowgli?
In the late 1800s, there were a number of reports involving children who had been found living among wild animals in the jungle. In 1872, for example, a group of hunters in Uttar Pradesh were reportedly attempting to smoke out a pack of wolves from a den when out stumbled a young boy. The hunters captured the feral child and brought him back to the Sikandra Orphanage where he was put into the care of Reverend Erhardt.
As this story circulated, Valentine Ball, an Irish geologist, wrote a letter to the orphanage requesting more information. Erhardt responded, as accounted in Ball’s “Jungle Life in India“:
My attention was, in the first place, drawn to this subject by the following extract from the Report of the Sekendra Orphanage, which, toward the end of the year 1872, went the round of the Indian papers:
“A boy of about ten was burned out of a den in the company of wolves. How long he had been with them it is impossible to say, but it must have been for rather a long period, from the facility he has for going on all fours, and his liking for raw meat. As yet he is very much like a wild animal; his very whine reminds one of a young dog or some such creature. Some years ago we had a similar child; he has picked up wonderfully, and though he has not learned to speak, can fully express his joys and grief. We trust the new ‘unfortunate’ may soon improve too.”
I immediately wrote the Superintendent of the Sekandra Orphanage for confirmation of the story, and for any further information on the subject. To this application I received the following reply from the Rev. Mr. Erhardt.
“We have had two such boys here, but I fancy you refer to the one who was brought to us on March 6th, 1872. He was found by Hindus who had gone hunting wolves in the neighborhood of Mynepuri. Had been burnt out of the den, and was brought here with the scars and wounds still on him. In his habits he was a perfect wild animal in every point of view. He drank like a dog, and liked a bone and raw meat better than anything else. He would never remain with the other boys but hid away in any dark corner. Clothes he never would wear, but tore them up into fine threads. He was only a few months among us, as he got fever and gave up eating. We kept him up for a time by artificial means, but eventually he died.
The above-displayed account mentions two boys who were reportedly raised by wolves. The first, who was supposedly smoked out of a wolf den, died a few months after arriving at the orphanage. During his short stay and brief life, he bonded with another child who was reportedly raised by wolves: Dina Sanichar.
Sanichar was abut 14 when the above-displayed account was written and had arrived at the orphanage (via unknown means) about six years prior. While Sanichar never learned to speak, he did adapt some human behaviors, such as wearing clothes and drinking from a cup. Sanichar also reportedly took up the habit of smoking cigarettes.
While the story of Sanichar’s arrival at the orphanage isn’t known, Ball provided some details after interrogating a guide in Agra who said that the boy was brought in to the magistrate’s court along with a mother wolf and two wolf cubs.
The feature in his physical structure which above all others attracted my particular notice was the shortness of his arms, the total length being only nineteen-and-a-half inches. This arrested growth was probably caused by the fact of his having gone on all-fours in early life, as all these wolf-boys are reported to have done when first captured …
A native guide in Agra whom I interrogated as to whether he had any knowledge of the subject, told me that rather less than nine years previously he was in the magistrate’s court when this boy, the body of an old female wolf, and two wolf cubs were brought in. At that time the boy was a perfect Janwar (wild beast). He went on all-fours, refused all kinds of cooked food, but would eat any amount of raw meat. For some time he was kept by the Civil Surgeon of Agra, bound down on a charpoy, or native bedstead, in order to straighten his legs and several months passed before he was able to maintain an erect position.
Sanichar Wasn’t the Only ‘Wolf Boy’
Sanichar wasn’t the only “wolf boy” to be discovered around this time. In fact, a British general named Sir William Henry Sleeman recorded at least five other stories about children who had grown up in the jungles.
In “A Journey through the Kingdom of Oude,” Sleeman recounts one story as follows:
There is now at Sultanpoor a boy who was found alive in a wolf’s den, near Chandour, about ten miles from Sultanpoor, about two years and a half ago. A trooper, sent by the native governor of the district to Chandour, to demand payment of some revenue, was passing along the bank of the river near Chandour about noon, when he saw a large female wolf leave her den, followed by three whelps and a little boy. The boy went on all fours, and seemed to be on the best possible terms with the old dam and the three whelps, and the mother seemed to guard all four with equal care. They all went down to the river and drank without perceiving the trooper, who sat upon his horse watching them. As soon as they were about to turn back, the trooper pushed on to cut off and secure the boy; but he ran as fast as the whelps could, and kept up with the old one. The ground was uneven, and the trooper’s horse could not overtake them. They all entered the den, and the trooper assembled some people from Chandour with pickaxes, and dug into the den. When they had dug in about six or eight feet, the old wolf bolted with her three whelps and the boy. The trooper mounted and pursued, followed by the fleetest young men of the party; and as the ground over which they had to fly was more even, he headed them, and turned the whelps and boy back upon the men on foot, who secured the boy, and let the old dam and her three cubs go on their way.
The boy in Sleeman’s story, like the boy who was smoked out of the wolf’s den, died a few months after being brought back to human society. While Sanichar was not the only “wolf child” to be found during this time, his story is unique as he was likely the only one of these children to survive into adulthood.
Sanichar died in 1895.
Did Sanichar Serve as Kipling’s Inspiration?
It seems rather likely that Kipling was aware of these stories when he wrote “The Jungle Book,” although we can’t be sure if he specifically knew about Sanichar.
First off, Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book” in 1894, which was shortly after these stories started emerging and just as fascination with the “wolf boys” of India was happening. Second, Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, who provided illustrations for the original “The Jungle Book,” mentioned these “wolf-child stories” in his 1891 book “Beast and Man in India.”
Kipling’s Inspiration According to Kipling
We haven’t been able to find any instance in which Kipling specifically referred to Sanichar or any other of this wolf-child stories. The author has, however, talked about the origins of “The Jungle Book” on a few occasions. In his autobiography “Something Of Myself,” Kipling writes that he was inspired by the “Masonic Lions of my childhood’s magazine,” and the novel “Nada The Lily” by H. Rider Haggard that featured a friendship between a man and a wolf.
In an 1895 letter, Kipling said that he borrowed from so many sources that it was impossible to “remember from whose stories I have stolen.”
A Journey through the Kingdom of Oude in 1849-1850, Volumes 1 and 2. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16997/16997-h/16997-h.htm. Accessed 17 Sept. 2021.
Ball, Valentine. Jungle Life in India: Or, The Journeys and Journals of an Indian Geologist. Thos. De La Rue, 1880.
Haggard, H. Rider (Henry Rider). Nada the Lily. New York, Longmans, Green, 1918. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/nadalily00hagg_1.
“Legendary Wildlife Conservators and Jungle Lore.” The Statesman, 6 Nov. 2013, https://www.thestatesman.com/world/legendary-wildlife-conservators-and-jungle-lore-23576.html.
Malson, Lucien, et al. Wolf Children and the Problem of Human Nature. New York, Monthly Review Press, 1972. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/wolfchildrenprob00mals.
Nast, Condé. “Real Story of Mowgli Netflix Movie: Who Was Mowgli. The Jungle Book Character & How Did It Inspire Netflix’s 2018 Hindi Movie Mowgli.” GQ India, 7 Dec. 2018, https://www.gqindia.com/content/true-story-behind-mowgli-netflix-hindi-movie-2018-what-is-the-real-story-of-mowgli-legend-of-the-jungle-who-was-mowgli-jungle-book-character.
Rudyard Kipling. Something Of Myself(1937). 1937. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.525263.
“Rudyard Kipling ‘Admitted to Plagiarism in Jungle Book.’” The Guardian, 29 May 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/29/rudyard-kipling-admitted-plagiarism-jungle-book.
Smith, Laura. “Literally Raised by Wolves, This Indian Boy Was Found Wandering in the Wilderness as a Six-Year-Old.” Medium, 20 Nov. 2017, https://timeline.com/dina-sanichar-feral-children-ea9f5f3a80b2.
The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/236/236-h/236-h.htm#link2H_4_0001. Accessed 17 Sept. 2021.
The Project Gutenberg EBook of Beast and Man in India, by John Lockwood Kipling. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40708/40708-h/40708-h.htm. Accessed 17 Sept. 2021.