With a fan club, several memorials and induction into the local Hindu pantheon, the legend of John Pennycuick, British engineer and chief architect of the disputed Periyar waterworks, lives on in southern Tamil Nadu
The fabled rice paddies of the Cumbum valley in Theni district, one of the most fertile belts in south India lying west of Madurai in southern Tamil Nadu, are girded by dense canopies of banana, grape and coconut. Here and there, Jersey cows look up from patches of serrated foliage, and rows of onion and beet saplings dance like so many chiffon-clad starlets before them in these bucolic uplands beloved of Tamil filmmakers. The road to Kumili, on the Kerala border, is a ribbon unspooling atop this parcel of green and surging towards the Cardamom Hills, wherein lies the fount of all this bounty: the 119-year-old Mullaperiyar dam, the source of a long-standing conflict between Tamil Nadu, which wants more of its water, and Kerala, which is concerned about the dam’s safety.
Last month, in a major victory for Tamil Nadu, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld a 2006 judgment on the height and safety of the dam and allowed the water level to be raised to 142 ft. The move could mean that farmers in the state, who had settled into a bi-annual cropping pattern and suffered crop losses after the reduction in the height of the dam to 136 ft in 1979, may go back to raising three crops a year. It was amid this wave of hope that we visited Theni, one of five districts — including Madurai, Sivaganga, Ramanathapuram and Dindigul — in the barren rain shadow region of Tamil Nadu that sprang to life with the opening of the 155 ft-high masonry dam in Kerala’s Idukki district in 1895. The spirit of the ruddy, mustachioed Colonel John Pennycuick (January 15, 1841 to March 9, 1911), the British chief engineer of the Periyar Waterworks, bestrides the low hills of Cumbum, which he is said to have surveyed on horseback over a century ago with his local aides, Aanaiviratti (tamer of elephants) Aanaithevar and Kaduvetti (clearer of forests) Karuputhevar. Over the years, legend of his largesse has snowballed and he has been assimilated into the local Hindu pantheon, with farming families offering the first harvest of the year in the form of pongal to a kumkum-anointed portrait of Pennycuick — a balding