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Mowgli was Real: Dina Sanichar, the Indian Boy Raised by Wolves

BY Shivani Yadav August 30, 2018
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Dina Sanichar photo from a newspaper.

Dina Sanichar photo from a newspaper. (Coll. Serge Aroles / Wikimedia Commons)

Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction“! It is also the belief that fiction has its roots in reality and often one has influenced the other. Do the words “man-cub” sound familiar? These words were used to describe the famous character, Mowgli of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book written in 1894. It was all about a boy or “man-cub” who was raised by wolves in a forest in India.

Discovering the feral child

Rewind to 1867. Location:  A forest in the Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh in India. A group of hunters froze in their tracks, unable to comprehend the vision in front of their eyes. A pack of wolves running in the forest had amongst them an extraordinary being. A part of the pack was a 6-year-old-boy walking on all fours. It appeared that the boy had been adopted and raised by the wolves.

There have been several incidents in the history of infants raised by animals in the wild. Such children are known as feral children. The term feral child technically is used for a human child who has lived in the wild or cut off from civilization. Some have been locked up by another human being with no human contact. Some grew up in the wild, probably raised by animals. These children not only lack basic social skills but also have trouble walking upright.

The hunters saw this unnatural family go into a den and decided to extract the feral child from there and take him back to civilization. They smoked the cave and had to kill the female wolf to capture the boy, whom they took to the Sikandra Mission Orphanage near Agra in India. At the orphanage, run by Father Erhardt, a missionary living in India, he was baptized and since it was a Saturday, named Sanichar, Hindi for Saturday. It has been documented that Father Erhardt observed, “He cannot talk, and though undoubtedly pagal (imbecile or idiotic), still shows sign of reason, and sometimes actual shrewdness

What do we know about feral children?

Eminent child psychologist, Wayne Dennis noted in his paper, The Significance of Feral Man, in the 1941 American Journal of Psychology, several characteristics of a feral child/man derived from studies. According to Dennis, feral children (man) were untidy and uncivilized in their habits of eating. He also considered them incapable of forming bonds with humans and fairly oblivious to temperature changes. Though this was true for most feral children, Sanichar was able to establish a close relationship with another feral child brought to the orphanage on March 5, 1872. Father Erhardt observed, “A strange bond of sympathy attached these two boys together, and the elder one first taught the younger to drink out of a cup.”

Sanichar was not the only wolf child found at that time. There were cases of four other wolf children found in various parts of India around that time, and many more cases of feral children surfaced in the years to come. In fact, the discovery of feral children all over the world has been a significant topic of study and discussion.

When a feral child was found in Aveyron, France in 1800, a young physician, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard gave the boy a name, Victor and observed him for five years, developing innovative ways to teach language to the boy. Victor became the subject around whom eminent scholars and psychologists debated and tried to decipher the differences between civilized man and wild animals.

Many people noticed that Victor’s behaviour was uncivilized and more in tandem with the behaviour of wild animals. It was, similarly, observed in many feral children that they displayed behavioural likeness with wild animals as opposed to people of a civilized society.

Sanichar, for example, in the same way, growled and grunted like a wolf, walked on all fours, ate raw meat, sharpened his teeth by gnawing on bones like an animal and, detested wearing clothes. People of the orphanage tried to work patiently with him to rid him of his wilderness and with the passing of time, Sanichar was more open to eating cooked food and wearing clothes, but he showed no progress in speech. Though he wasn’t mute, he only made animal noises.

Studies have shown that feral children were unable to incorporate the norm of the society but continued to live in a black hole in between civilization and wilderness. The bridge between the two is said to be language. It was later analyzed and concluded by researchers that apparently, there is a “critical period” for learning a language. If during that period, no form of communication has taken place or no effort has been made to include a language, it is almost impossible to then be able to grasp words or have any understanding of them.

Dina Sanichar. (Photos of the Past / Flickr)

Avram Noam Chomsky, also known as “the father of modern linguistics“, in his 1957 publication, Syntactic Structures, wrote that it is a language which enables a human experience. According to Chomsky, if people knowing no language were deserted on an island, they would generate a language of their own in a couple of generations.

In his book, Wolf Children and the Problem of Human Nature, philosopher Lucien Malson wrote that Sanichar had managed to put together “cruder, less specifically human” forms of communication. Like many other feral children, he was prone to barking, growling, howling and attacking; probably picked up from the actions of the animals they were brought up by or lived with.

Sanichar lived a short life, dying at the young age of 34. He lived in the orphanage his entire life showing very little improvement. He was able to stand erect and walk, managed to dress with a little difficulty and was able to keep an eye on his cup and plate. He started eating from a plate but always sniffed his food before putting it in his mouth and steered clear of anything that was not meat. Sanichar eagerly took up one human habit, smoking, and turned into a chain smoker. It is speculated that he died of tuberculosis in 1895. Do you think Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli could have been inspired by Dina Sanichar?


Recommended Read:
Wolf Children and the Problem of Human Nature | By Lucien Malson


Fact Analysis:
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