R Rudyard Kipling

Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling 

‘Gunga Din’ is one of Kipling’s best-known poems. It features two characters, the speaker who is a white British soldier fighting in India, and Gunga Din, an Indian water carrier who is beaten and abused by the soldiers. The poem was published along with poems like ‘Mandalay’ and ‘Danny Deever’ in Barrack-Room Ballads. In this poem, the poet touches on important and controversial themes of perception, race, war, and life/death.

Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling 


Summary of Gunga Din 

Gunga Din’ by Rudyard Kipling describes the life and death of an Indian water carrier named Gunga Din.

In the first lines of this poem the speaker addresses the nature of serving in India. This includes the heat, the atmosphere, war, and those he spent time with. There was one person specifically that sticks out in his mind from this experience, Gunga Din.

He was an Indian man working with the English soldiers. This brave and much-maligned man was responsible for bringing water to the soldiers whenever they needed it. These men, including the speaker, beat and mistreated Gunga Din. 

Everything changed when the speaker was shot on the battlefield. Gunga Din came to him, gave him water, and helped staunch his wound. It was this kindness and the fact that Gunga Din died for the efforts that changed the speaker’s opinion of him. 


Structure of Gunga Din

Gunga Din’ by Rudyard Kipling is an eighty-four line narrative poem that is separated into five seventeen line stanzas. The lines follow a loose rhyme scheme of AABCCBDDEFFEFFGGF. There are moments where the pattern changes slight with the pronunciation of “Din”. Kipling wrote the poem so that sometimes the word should be pronounced to rhyme with “Queen” and other times to rhymes with “been”. 

Upon starting this piece a reader will immediately take note of the use of language and the dialect used by the speaker. Words are shorted and a great deal of slang is used. This often makes some sections of the poem harder to interpret than others. When reading this kind of poetry it is always helpful to speak out loud, one word often flows more easily into the next.


Poetic Techniques in Gunga Din 

Kipling makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Gunga Din’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, repetition, and imagery. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “will,” “work,” and “water” in line five of the first stanza and “day” and “done” in line two of the third stanza.

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines one and two of the fourth stanza and lines seven and eight of the fifth stanza.

Repetition is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone, or phrase within a poem. For example, the repetition of Gunga Din’s name. It is used frequently, appearing at the ends of multiple lines (a technique known as epistrophe) and used as a refrain. 

Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. This particular poem is crammed full of image-rich lines. For example, that of the water towards the end of the poem. The speaker describes it as “water green. / It was crawlin’ and it stunk”. 


Analysis of Gunga Din 

Stanza One 

Lines 1-9

You may talk o’ gin and beer

When you’re quartered safe out ’ere,

An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;

But when it comes to slaughter

You will do your work on water,

An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ’im that’s got it.

Now in Injia’s sunny clime,

Where I used to spend my time

A-servin’ of ’Er Majesty the Queen,

In the first stanza of ‘Gunga Din,’ the speaker begins by addressing the audience. He tells them that as a soldier it’s possible to drink “gin and beer” when you’re safe and when you’re participating in “penny-fights,” or small fights. But, when it’s slaughter, things change. There is no time to relax then, nor are there any pleasurable drinks to be had. Instead, you have to submit on water. There is where Gunga Din is going to come into the story.

In the seventh line of this stanza the speaker, who throughout the poem speaks in a dialect that is often hard to interpret, uses the word “Injia” to refer to India. He is there, along with his English comrades, fighting for “‘Er” or “her” Majesty the Queen.


Lines 10-17

Of all them blackfaced crew

The finest man I knew

Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din,

He was ‘Din! Din! Din!

‘You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!

‘Hi! Slippy hitherao

‘Water, get it! Panee lao,

‘You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.’

This man expresses several opinions throughout this poem, whiling using phrases and words, that are uncomfortable for modern readers. His language is derogatory towards the Indian people and Gunga Din specifically. He calls them the “blackfaced crew”. They were the Indians that worked alongside the English and this poem is about one of them whose job it was to carry water, Gunga Din. He is a “bhisti,” or water carrier. The man was always around doing his job and suffering alongside the soldiers. His strength, good nature, perseverance, and patience are ignored by the English. 

The English soldiers take out their anger, frustrations, and fears on this man. They call him names, insult him, beat him, and generally treat him as a slave. They call him names like those listed in the last four lines of his stanza, “limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust” is one example. The perfect rhymes in these lines are disconcerting. They feel upbeat and song-like and do not match the dark and fearful imagery that the speaker is depicting.


Stanza Two 

The uniform ’e wore

Was nothin’ much before,

An’ rather less than ’arf o’ that be’ind,

For a piece o’ twisty rag

An’ a goatskin water-bag

Was all the field-equipment ’e could find.

When the sweatin’ troop-train lay

In a sidin’ through the day,

Where the ’eat would make your bloomin’ eyebrows crawl,

We shouted ‘Harry By!’

Till our throats were bricky-dry,

Then we wopped ’im ’cause ’e couldn’t serve us all.

It was ‘Din! Din! Din!

‘You ’eathen, where the mischief ’ave you been?

‘You put some juldee in it

‘Or I’ll marrow you this minute

‘If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!’

In the second stanza of this troubling poem, the speaker goes into more detail about Gunga Din. This shows, at the very least, that he has taken notice of him for more than what he can provide or as an outlet for anger. The Indian water carrier doesn’t really have a uniform nor does he have any equipment. He carries a simple “piece o’ twisty rag” and “a goatskin water-bag”. These things weren’t even given to him, he had to “find” them. 

The speaker remembers how on days where everyone was laying around in the sun, suffering from the heat, that they’d shout at Gunga Din to bring them water. They’d say “Harry-By!” Till their “throats were bricky-dry”. He’d move as quickly as he could but still, they’d hit him and insult him because he didn’t move fast enough. The repetition of the phrase “Din! Din! Din!” is a haunting addition to these stanzas. It is a refrain that appears at the end of each.  

The men would shout things out at Gunga Din. They’d call him a “‘eathen” or “heathen” and threaten him with violence. Kipling uses other techniques in this poem, such as alliteration, to make these lines feel all the more connected. For example, “marrow” and “minute” in the sixteenth line of this stanza.


Stanza Three 

’E would dot an’ carry one

Till the longest day was done;

An’ ’e didn’t seem to know the use o’ fear.

If we charged or broke or cut,

You could bet your bloomin’ nut,

’E’d be waitin’ fifty paces right flank rear.

With ’is mussick on ’is back,

’E would skip with our attack,

An’ watch us till the bugles made ‘Retire,’

An’ for all ’is dirty ’ide

’E was white, clear white, inside

When ’e went to tend the wounded under fire!

It was ‘Din! Din! Din!’

With the bullets kickin’ dust-spots on the green.

When the cartridges ran out,

You could hear the front-ranks shout,

‘Hi! ammunition-mules an’ Gunga Din!’

Poor Gunga Din would do his job no matter the circumstances. He’d walk onto the battlefield with the soldiers without fear. The bullets and fighting were nothing to him. The speaker notices, at least looking back on the past, that he didn’t “seem to know the use o’ fear”. He was always fifty paces or so right behind them ready to bring water if they needed it.

In the middle of this stanza, there is one of the darker more troubling lines that often appear within Kipling’s poems. The speaker, in a racist attempt at a compliment, refers to Gunga Din have a “dirty hide” but a “clean white, inside”. This is meant to show that he’s just as good as the white men are, on the inside anyway. 

As the shots were falling everywhere and cartridges were running out the men would call out for “Din!”


Stanza Four 

I shan’t forgit the night

When I dropped be’ind the fight

With a bullet where my belt-plate should ’a’ been.

I was chokin’ mad with thirst,

An’ the man that spied me first

Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.

’E lifted up my ’ead,

An’ he plugged me where I bled,

An’ ’e guv me ’arf-a-pint o’ water green.

It was crawlin’ and it stunk,

But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,

I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.

It was ‘Din! Din! Din!

‘’Ere’s a beggar with a bullet through ’is spleen;

‘’E’s chawin’ up the ground,

‘An’ ’e’s kickin’ all around:

‘For Gawd’s sake git the water, Gunga Din!’

It is in the fourth stanza of the poem that the speaker explains why things changed for him. He used to hate and pick on Gunga Din like the rest of them but finally, he saw through clear eyes. The man was shot. A bullet when where his “belt-plate should ‘a’ been”. He was suffering, mad with thirst, and the first person who found him was “Gunga Din”. 

Rather than passing him by in revenge for the way he had been treated, Gunga Din stops and helps the soldier. Gunga Din was smiling and lifted the soldier’s head to give him water. He helped the man with his wound. The soldier’s gratitude is seen through his willingness to drink the “water green” that in other circumstances would’ve been unbearable. 


Stanza Five 

’E carried me away

To where a dooli lay,

An’ a bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean.

’E put me safe inside,

An’ just before ’e died,

‘I ’ope you liked your drink,’ sez Gunga Din.

So I’ll meet ’im later on

At the place where ’e is gone—

Where it’s always double drill and no canteen.

’E’ll be squattin’ on the coals

Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,

An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!

Yes, Din! Din! Din!

You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!

Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,

By the livin’ Gawd that made you,

You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

In the fifth stanza, it is revealed that Gunga Din was hit by a bullet while he was attempting to save this soldier’s life. He carried the man away and a “bullet come an’ drilled the beggar clean”. Still, he pulled the speaker inside. The last thing that Gunga Din said was that he hoped the soldier “liked” his “drink”. Gunga Din died, leaving the soldier with this memory and a changed opinion of the man and his own actions. 

The last lines outline a future life where he will meet Gunga Din again. Together they’ll sit by the fire again and he’ll get another drink from him. The last lines are the best-remembered of all eight-four. In them, the soldier admits his faults and declares that Gunga Din had always been a better man than him. 

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
  • I have to disagree with some of the analysis of the last eight lines. In some strands of military folklore, any soldier’s afterlife is most likely to be with the Man Downstairs due to the sins their work may require of them; killing enemy soldiers with whom they have no personal dispute in the course of a battle, for example. It is to this afterlife that the narrator refers. It is hard to tell if the narrator pictures Gunga Din there because the water bearer is not a Christian or because he considers him a comrade whose place is among the soldiers because of his habitual bravery. I’d go for the latter interpretation. For all his racist language, the narrator actually admires Gunga Din.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      This is a wonderfully developed idea, cleverly informed by contextual information. Thanks for sharing this.

  • I always interpreted the last lines as saying that Din was in Hell, tending to the poor damned souls, and squatting on the coals. It was probably assumed by all the British that Indians weren’t going to Heaven and would all end up in Hell. At least the soldier realized that he, too, was thither bound.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      I think there is definitely merit in that interpretation.

    • It’s rather ironic that despite the writer believing that Gunga Din was “White, pure white inside” he still thought that Gunga Din would go to hell.

      • Lee-James Bovey says:

        Yeah Rudyard Kipling really wasn’t a cool guy, was he? Although it was a different era.

        • Actually, Kipling was a very “cool guy” as evidenced by his very real and true insights into the human soul and mind.

          • Lee-James Bovey says:

            Maybe, but his views on colonialism and race weren’t very progressive.

          • Jeanne DeShazer-Ellsworth says:

            I see this differently. Because Kipling was writing this in the voice of a rough, not too educated soldier, he is more trying to point out the poor treatment of the Indians by the military. The “white” can also be referring to purity. We need to sometimes go back in history to truly understand intent. Poets very often do not speak for themselves literally but through a character, who demonstrates stark reality. This soldier has literally been changed by Gunga Din, and admits hes a better man than the soldier. Heathen was a name given to non-Christians. This was the worldview for the western world. No doubt the Eastern people thought similarly about the Brits.

          • Lee-James Bovey says:

            Thank you so much for this post. I really enjoyed listening to your opinion. Often I have to rush replies on here and occasionally have opinions that aren’t particularly well refined. So to hear a thought-provoking challenge of those opinions has forced me to actually read the poem! Weirdly I don’t do enough of that at the moment (I’m doing my PGCE so time is at a premium!) But you know what, I think you are right. When I get the time (chance would be a fine thing) I really want to investigate into Kipling and his relationship with India and his views. I think it could be enlightening.

          • Joe Momma says:

            I can’t help but think that the officers who were properly educated according to the standards of the time would be of the same disposition as the low ranked soldiers towards the Indians. Perhaps more eloquent. I feel that a poor and likely uneducated man would be better able to sympathize with the bhisti. If you look at the demographics of the modern American military, you would perhaps realize that not much has changed. The man was the very definition of “progressive” for even daring to suggest that a brown man might be his better.

          • Lee-James Bovey says:

            I suppose you are right, sometimes it is difficult not to look at the term progressive through a modern lens -yesterday’s progressive is today’s regressive.

    • Agreed. My dad studied this poem as a child in the early 1930s and yours was also his interpretation…. humans all being “sinners”.

  • >

    Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

    Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

    Ad blocker detected

    To create the home of poetry, we fund this through advertising

    Please help us help you by disabling your ad blocker


    We appreciate your support

    The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

    Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

    Share via
    Copy link
    Powered by Social Snap