Shafik Meghji uncovers the Indian landscape that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale – and picks out five other destinations where you can find the characters’ real-life counterparts.
The national parks of eastern Madhya Pradesh are often described as “Kiplingesque”. This landscape of creeper-clad forests, expansive savannah, grassy hills, and meandering streams simply teems with wildlife: monkeys, pythons, sloth bears, wild boar, swamp deer, wild dogs, leopards, porcupines, gaur (the world’s largest wild cattle), and – of course – majestic Royal Bengal tigers.
Rudyard Kipling, who was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) and spent his formative years in India, never actually visited this central Indian region, but drew heavily on the accounts of several British travellers who had for The Jungle Book. At the time he was writing, eastern Madhya Pradesh was a vast viceregal hunting ground, where prominent British army officers and civil servants sought out trophies – particularly tiger heads – to display at home. The first national park in the state – Kanha – was only created in 1955.
Today, it’s easy to imagine “man-cub” Mowgli, Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and the rest of the gang stalking through Madhya Pradesh’s reserves. However, Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba in the new film) is by far the biggest draw for tourists: you have a better chance of spotting a tiger in the wild in one of the state’s parks – particularly in Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench – than anywhere else on Earth.
Madhya Pradesh’s premier park is Kanha, which spans some 940 square kilometres and is home to an estimated 40-45 tigers. Lodges just outside the park – including the excellent Shergarh Tented Camp – run jeep safaris (known locally as “game drives”) at sunrise and in the early afternoon, with guides scouring the ground for “pug marks” (tiger footprints) and listening out for the agitated alarm calls that signal that a big cat is close by.
Nothing, though, quite prepares you for your first sight of a tiger in the wild.
Whether it is a brief glimpse of gold and black in the undergrowth or an extended viewing of a big cat in the open, it feels like an incredible privilege.
If you’re after your own Jungle Book adventure this year, head to one of these wild and wonderful landscapes: