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Mullaperiyar dam: John Pennycuick, the man who tamed the big river

Jun 15 2014, 10:54 IST
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A shop in the region with Pennycuick’s face on its hoarding. A shop in the region with Pennycuick’s face on its hoarding.
SummaryWith a fan club, several memorials and induction into the local Hindu pantheon, the legend of John Pennycuick...

man in a white collared shirt and a dark jacket, his white-flecked moustache carelessly

framing thin lips. 

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,” says KM Abbas, president of a farmers’ forum in Cumbum and author of a book on Pennycuick. In Cumbum, says Abbas, children know him as Pennycuick thatha (Tamil for grandfather) and are often named after his associates, a popular name being Logandurai, for ER Logan, who oversaw tunnelling works for the Periyar project.

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.

In Palani Chettipatti, a small town near Theni through which a canal of the Mullaiyar flows, a legend reverberates with variations: the Chettiars from the area, locals say, donated liberally to the cause and Pennycuick gave them free access to the waters as a token of his gratitude. In yet another elision between fact and fable, solid gold offerings are said to have

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