Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  John Pennycuick: The man who built the Mullaiperiyar dam

The year was 1876. Madras Province was in the grip of a famine. It lasted for two years, spreading across the subcontinent. More than a million people died of starvation in Madras Province alone. Overall, the famine is estimated to have killed as many as 10 million people, a tragedy that went largely unnoticed in the rest of the world.

The Illustrated London News ran a graphic story on the Great Madras Famine; the famous English medical reformer Florence Nightingale questioned why Britain provided no relief, as it had with the Bengal famine a few years earlier.

Enraged, William Wedderburn and A.O. Hume decided to form the Indian National Congress, as they felt that the British had lost all moral right over India, in a way laying the foundation for Indian independence in 1947. At the first session of the Congress, right after the famine, the largest contingent came from Madras Province.

While the political reaction is well known, a second reaction, less famous and highly contested today, came in the form of a remarkable feat of engineering.

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.

Then, in 1862, after India’s administration was transferred from the Company to Queen Victoria following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Major Joseph Gore Ryves of the Madras Corps revived the idea and recommended an earth dam. In 1870, R. Smith—also of the Madras Corps—supported the idea, but it was rejected on the grounds of safety, by General George Warren Walker, chief engineer of Madras.

Walker asked Smith and Scottish Major John Pennycuick to study the option of building a gravity dam. They duly submitted a proposal in 1874, but it was rejected by the then acting chief engineer of Madras, Colonel John Halsted, as the design was for a concrete dam.

After the Madras famine, in 1882, Pennycuick was asked to submit a revised design—with a rubble-and-concrete dam instead—that was finally approved. But we will get to that in just a bit.

To Britain and back

John Pennycuick was the 10th child of Brigadier General John Pennycuick and Sarah Farrell Pennycuick (there were 11 children in all). He was born in Pune on 15 January 1841—the day of the harvest festival that year, celebrated across the subcontinent as Makar Sankranti, Pongal, Lohri, Uttrayana, etc.

In 1849, his father and elder brother were killed during the Second Anglo-Sikh War. His distraught mother took her huge family back to Britain. But the law of primogeniture (right of the firstborn) enforced in Britain and all over the empire gave all inheritance rights to the eldest son, which Brigadier General Pennycuick had not been, leaving Sarah Pennycuick with no property to fall back on.

Though given an annual pension, she struggled to shelter and support her family, sending her sons to study at Cheltenham College, an institution formed to provide free schooling to children of British soldiers and gentry serving abroad or who died in battle. 

In 1851, thanks to the “Grace and Favour" of Queen Victoria, Sarah Pennycuick, with her household of children, grandchildren and servants, moved into apartment No. 7 on the third floor in the Hampton Court Castle. 

When the mutiny broke out in India, Pennycuick was studying at the East India Company Military College at Addiscombe, Surrey. Drafted into the Madras Engineer Group, he arrived in Madras in 1860. By then, the mutiny was over and he followed his favourite pursuit—cricket. In 1865, as secretary of the Madras Cricket Club, he helped acquire land to build the Chepauk cricket stadium.

In 1868, he commanded the H Company in the Abyssinian Expedition, for which he earned a medal. In 1878, his mother died and he rushed back to Britain. After the funeral, Pennycuick returned to India and married Georgina Grace Chamier in 1879.

And so we come to 1882, when he was asked to present a revised design—the one that was finally approved. The new design necessitated the chiselling of a tunnel (more than 2km long) in the Western Ghats, and a large area would be submerged in water as the course of a portion of the Periyar had to be changed—but this land belonged to the princely state of Travancore.

The British decided to call in an old debt.

The kingdom of Mysore had invaded Travancore several times in the late 18th century and early 19th century, and the kings of Travancore would go to the British in Madras Province for help. The East India Company readily sent soldiers to back them up, and Travancore managed to weather the Mysore onslaught time and again.

So, when the Madras government came to make a deal for the land, Travancore agreed to lease out 8,100 acres of uninhabitable land. They agreed to a contract of 999 years—instead of the standard 99—as the pact would be binding on all successors.

However, Travancore drove a hard bargain as they knew the British would get revenue once they built the dam. The talks lasted for almost five years, and in the end, Travancore would be paid Rs5 a year for every acre.

A.T. Mackenzie, the executive engineer at the public works department in Madras Province at the time, in his book documenting the Periyar dam project summarized the negotiations: “The British government took the ground that the water was useless and likely to remain useless to Travancore, and that the land was a piece of uninhabited jungle, not of great value even in the matter of timber and from its location practically impossible for the Travancore Government to exploit. The latter Government on the other hand contended that the value should be appraised by its utility to the British Government, which was admittedly high, since an expenditure of 53,00,000 was expected to bring in a return of 7 per cent per annum."

Today, the Tamil Nadu government pays for electricity generated by the dam, around Rs10 lakh a year, and Rs2.5 lakh in taxes to the Kerala government, apart from Rs7.5 lakh as rent for the 8,100 acres, even though the dam only uses 100 acres and the rest is administered by Kerala.

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.

It was not until 14 January 1890 that work could be resumed, Pennycuick wrote. The timberwork for a pair of cross dams had been prepared during the interval and pumping began again on 27 January. Construction began and went on for the two months before April. Work began again in July 1890.

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.

Pennycuick retired after the opening of the dam. The Madras Cricket Club gave him a farewell party. He returned to Britain in 1896 with his wife and five daughters, and took up the post of president of the Royal Indian Engineering College, Cooper’s Hill, from which he resigned in 1899. (A son was born to him, another John Pennycuick, who went on to become a lawyer and was eventually knighted.) He was invited to Australia to give advice on the flooding of the Brisbane river the same year, which he did.

Pennycuick Pongal

As long as the Madras Province existed in independent India, people didn’t forget the Great Famine or John Pennycuick or the sacrifice of their ancestors. However, when it was divided into states along linguistic lines, disputes quickly broke out between Kerala and Tamil Nadu over who owns the water.

(Tamil Nadu wants the height of the dam to be increased, so that it can supply more water to the state’s farmers. Kerala argues that adding to the dam may destabilize it, and that if the dam breaks, the resulting flooding would cause widespread destruction in Kerala. So far, the Supreme Court has ruled in Tamil Nadu’s favour.)

Pennycuick and others who helped build the dam didn’t do it for glory. When he died in 1911, Pennycuick’s obituary carried no mention of the dam and read as follows: 

“COL. JOHN PENNYCUICK, C.S.I., who died at Camberley on March 9th, was born on January 15, 1841, at Poona. He did not obtain his colours at Cheltenham, but in India, where the greater part of his life was spent, he did much for the game, especially in promoting and encouraging it among the natives. In all matches during his career he scored over 12,000 runs and took considerably over 2,000 wickets."

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." 

Another common tale is that Pennycuick was subjected to an inquiry commission by the British government. To this, Sampson said, “I am not aware it. It seems clear that he did not make himself popular with the treasury officers of the Indian government. This is probably the reason why he did not receive a knighthood."

Water for elephants

When I was a kid, my parents took me to Thekkady, in present-day Kerala’s Idukki district. I remember being thrilled to see wild elephants during the boat ride, never knowing I would one day write about the man who created Thekkady, which came into existence when the diversion of the Periyar led to the formation of the huge artificial lake—on the 8,000-odd acres leased from Travancore.

Not to mention the Periyar National Park, which emerged after the dam was built, preventing the water from submerging forests, leading to the preservation of a vast amount of biodiversity. Both Thekkady and the park lie in Kerala today, but people are quick to condemn Pennycuick there! 

His true heritage has been lost—while building the dam, thousands of people in Madras Province united in an attempt to ensure their future generations didn’t die for want of water. What would they think about their descendants’ squabbles now, I wonder.

Deepa Kandaswamy is an award-winning freelance writer and author based in India.

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