Colonel John Pennycuick is an British Army Chief engineer and civil servant responsible for building the historical Mullaiperiyar dam, to solve the drought situation in Vaigai delta region in 19th century.
During the construction of the dam, as he could not get adequate funds, he sold his family property to mobilize money to fund the project, which was completed in 1895. To honor and salute his great contribution, the Public Works Department Office at Madurai houses a life-size bronze statue of Pennycuick.
A tale of two rivers
Two rivers originate from the Western Ghats—the big Periyar, which flows west along with several tributaries, and the small Vaigai, which flows east into Madurai and beyond. During summer, the Vaigai often dried up, many a time never even reaching Madurai.
The Madras Province included present-day Kerala, Tamil Nadu, southern Karnataka, southern Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and southern Odisha, excluding the princely states of Pudukkotai, Mysore and Travancore.
During the Madras famine, while people across the province were dying without water, a tiny south-western region was struggling with severe floods due to heavy rains that killed quite a few as well.
The contrast was stark. However, a solution was mooted to tackle both problems—building a dam in the province across its largest river (the Periyar, which literally means “big river”) that flowed in the forest areas (mullai): the Mullaiperiyar dam.
If part of the Periyar, which emptied into the Arabian Sea, could be diverted eastwards, then the deaths on both sides could be prevented. It wasn’t a new idea. It had been suggested a century earlier by Muthu Irulappa Pillai, the prime minister of the Ramnad kingdom. And in 1808, Captain James Caldwell of the Madras Corps of Engineers, the oldest in the Indian subcontinent, took it up. He investigated and prepared a plan, but the British East India Company wasn’t interested.
An engineering marvel
Pennycuick’s team began work in September 1887. More than 3,000 workers from all over Madras Province were recruited to stay and build the 175ft-high dam in mountainous jungle terrain, at an elevation of 3,000ft.
The site chosen was not at the mouth of the river but several hundred feet below, 11km away from the nearest mud road and 128km from the nearest railway station. Weak lines of communication with the outside world, the cold weather and several months of continuous rainfall meant cholera and malaria was the norm. Not to mention the wildlife they had to contend with—tigers, bears, elephants, snakes, etc.
The preliminary work—building roads and camp sites—was completed by April 1888, and Pennycuick left for Britain to procure machinery and returned in July. Water carriages and wire ropes were used to avoid relying solely on cart haulage in the hilly terrain. But it would take another seven years for the dam to be completed.
As Pennycuick later wrote, first two dams were built above and below the site of the main dam to divert the water away from the site. Work could be taken up only between the two monsoons—from the end of August to middle of October each year and again from December to April.
In 10 days, from 5 December to 15 December 1889, trestles were erected and cross dams were built, he wrote. The spaces between the dams were pumped dry and work on the masonry of the foundation started. But on 18 December, there was a thunderstorm and three inches of rain fell in four hours.
The dam was opened in 1895. No one knows exactly how many people died while working on the dam and the tunnel—many were washed away, and thousands of labourers were buried in unmarked graves now overgrown with plants, their sacrifices forgotten by most, but not by Pennycuick, who always asserted that the credit for the dam should go to them.
The dam, considered an engineering marvel in 1897, caught the attention of civil engineers across the British Empire, but Pennycuick, now a colonel, received no accolades, though it is considered his legacy. It not only fed the Vaigai, but made several districts of Madras Province fertile, while new districts such as Idukki emerged from the water thanks to the diversion of the river.
Even today, though, Tamil farmers in districts that have benefited from the dam have elevated Pennycuick to a minor deity, offering a “Pennycuick Pongal” at harvest time (which generally coincides with Pennycuick’s birthday) as thanks for the dam that changed their lives.
In the popular narrative, many claim that Pennycuick sold his property and his wife’s jewels to fund the dam’s construction. However, his great-grandson, Stuart Sampson, in an email said, “It is a myth. I have no evidence of this.”
The legacy of a man who changed the course of the Periyar river, and the lives of millions of people, with the gravity of his actions and his sheer strength of purpose looms large over Theni. “If it wasn’t for Pennycuick, our fields would be fallow. Over 2.17 lakh acres of paddy, cultivated by 32,000 small farmers, are impacted by the dam. Every day, a crore or more people drink from its waters.
For most of its 300-km length, the Periyar, literally, the Big River, flows through Kerala before emptying — wastefully, according to Tamil Nadu — into the Arabian Sea. Pennycuick’s great ingenuity was that he dammed the river at its confluence with the smaller Mullaiyar river, and diverted the water from the reservoir through a 1.6-km-long tunnel to Tamil Nadu, where it goes on to feed the Suruliyar river and the Vaigai dam. This water then passes through a grid of canals to irrigate vast tracts of land in the state. It would seem that the man who diverted a river from west to east for the first time in India’s history, charted a similar course for himself as he settled down to work at his modest cottage on the dam site at Idukki. Locals say he spoke fluent Tamil, relished biryani and made sure his workers never wanted for food or liquor. When torrents of rain washed away his labour of love three years into its construction, around the year 1890, he is said to have wept and struggled to gather funds for rebuilding the masonry dam in the face of scepticism from the British government.
The largest and the latest of memorials to Pennycuick, with a giant bronze statue and black-and-white photographs of the dam, was inaugurated at Lower Camp near Gudalur in Theni last year by Jayalalithaa.
A memorial to Colonel John Pennycuick was unveiled at Lower Camp 8 Kms from Gudalur in Theni District.Further newly constructed bus terminal in Theni named after him in December 2013.
How to Reach:
Nearest Airport : Madurai
Nearest Railway station : Madurai
Reaching from Madurai-Usilampatti-Andipati to Theni.