A feral tale: meet the real Mowgli

of wolf children

India is a land where it’s sometimes difficult to separate the legend from the truth. One such legend is the story of the real Mowgli, the wolf child immortalised by Kipling in The Jungle Book. Few people believe that Mowgli actually existed. Even fewer are aware that there were several ‘wolf children’, and the last one died around 1958.

Major General William Sleeman was an officer in the British East India Company. He is best known for the eradication of Thugee. In a book called Rambles and Recollections Of An Indian Official, General Sleeman has given one of the best descriptions of wolf children, perhaps only surpassed by the description in the book An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children In Their Dens written by an Indian official.

There is a story of a woman who was working in the fields. She left her infant son under a tree’s shade. At noon, she said she noticed a large shadow behind the bushes. She heard her child give a little cry, and when she turned around, she claimed that she saw a large wolf dragging off her infant by the shoulder. She ran after the wolf but the animal was too fast for her, and it ran away into the jungle.

It was some years later when a few soldiers of the local Raja were out hunting in the jungles, they saw a large female wolf followed by her cubs.

The last cub appeared to be larger than the rest, and they observed the animal a bit closely. To their surprise, they saw that it wasn’t a wolf at all but a young boy running on all fours. They ran after the wolves and just managed to catch the boy before the rest of the pack disappeared into one of the caves that dotted the region.

The child kicked and bit the soldiers, but they held him firmly and brought him back to the camp. They kept him in their camp as a mascot. The soldiers tried to give their captive cooked meat, bread and chapatis, but he refused to eat.

In a fit of fury, the camp cook pitched a joint of raw mutton at the child, as he lay chained on the ground. To the surprise of the men, the child ate it with gusto. The next day, the child ate the meat right down to the bone. Over the next few days the soldiers noticed the child sharing his meal of raw meat with the stray dogs of the village.

At night, the child was seen playing with jackals and wolves that frequented the outskirts of every Indian village. The child was communicating with the wolves in their language. The wolves replied with grunts and snarls, and the child shared his meal with the animals. At daybreak, the animals melted into the surrounding jungle and the boy was left alone, tethered to a pole near the village well.

The village children teased the child unmercifully and the battle was an unequal one since the child did not know how to reply. The village children pitched frogs at the child and he ate these morsels greedily, swallowing the food raw. The children often threw bones and hides of animals, which were masticated and swallowed with evident relish. They were careful not to get too close since the little wolf child had already bitten a couple of villagers.

The young child smelled like a wild animal and all attempts to give him a bath failed. He abhorred water. The villagers tried to hold him and give him a bath but he bit a couple of them so savagely that their attempts failed.

He spent the whole day sleeping and was most wakeful at night, sharing his food with the animals from the jungle. The villagers tried to give him clothes, but he tore them with his teeth and discarded them.

The seasons had no effect upon the child. During the summer, he drank more water than usual and crawled into the shade when the midday sun was at its peak. During the winter, he was given a quilt by the villagers. The child tore the quilt to pieces and ate the stuffing. He was oblivious to the cold in spite of his nakedness.

The child’s fame spread and one of the people who heard about the creature was the village woman whose child had been picked up by the wolf. She travelled to the village and recognised her child immediately. The villagers were sceptical but the woman pointed out two things that proved beyond doubt that the child was hers.

She said that the child had a scald on his flank, an injury that he had sustained when he was a few months old when she had accidentally dropped hot milk on him. The woman also said that the child would have bite marks on the shoulder since that was where the wolf held him while carrying him away. Closer examination proved the woman right. The woman took the child back, but he did not survive long after.

This child was not the Mowgli of The Jungle Book. The real Mowgli, not the sweet child that Kipling made him out to be, lived and existed around Jabalpur. He was a killer and a man-eater; legend says that he killed and ate more that 30 people around the village of Sant Bawadi (in present-day Madhya Pradesh).

Mowgli was finally captured by the British and died in jail at (then) Jubbulpore in the 1830s.

Truth is stranger than fiction. Thankfully, Kipling has portrayed him as a sweet child and not the abhorrent man that he really was.

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A feral tale: meet the real Mowgli

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