THE DAM THAT PENNYCUICK BUILT
The Mullaiperiyar dam has hogged the headlines thanks to the controversy surrounding it. This article is a brief profile of Col.J.Pennycuick, the man behind its construction and one who has been deified in the villages that have benefited from his engineering marvel.
Col.J.Pennycuick was born on 15th of January 1841 to Brigadier General John Pennycuick and Sarah Pennycuick. He was one of five sons and six daughters. The father, who had entered the army in 1807, was killed in action in 1849 in the Battle of Chillianwala, during the Second Anglo Sikh war.
Col.J.Pennycuick was educated at the Cheltenham College. He later joined the Addiscombe Military College where he underwent the examination for Her Majesty’s Indian Forces in 1858. He was one amongst six cadets who qualified for the Royal Engineers and joined as Lieutenant.
There seems to be little documentation available on how his military career developed. But what is known is that he commanded the H Company of the II Madras Sappers, which was employed in the public works at Zoulla during the Abyssinian campaign in 1868. The official correspondence mentions that Pennycuick “appears to have conducted the duties of his position in an efficient manner”. In recognition of his services at Abyssinia, he was awarded a medal. A promotion to the rank of Second Captain followed in 1870. He married Grace Georgiana Chamier in 1879 and the couple had five daughters and a son. The son, also named John Pennycuick, went on to become a Vice Chancellor of the High Court of Justice of England and Wales in the 1960s.
It was Pennycuick’s stint with the Public Works Department and his involvement in the Periyar Irrigation Project that was to be his most defining contribution to the Madras Presidency. He held a number of positions in the department such as Superintending Engineer in October 1881, Deputy Chief Engineer and Under Secretary to the Government in January 1883 and Superintendent of Works, Tank Maintenance Scheme in April 1884.
The idea for the damming of the Periyar river was first suggested in 1798 by Muttu Arula Pillai, the Prime Minister of the Raja of Ramnad. Though the idea was found to be viable, it was dropped due to lack of funds. In 1808, Sir James Caldwell, the District Engineer reported that the scheme was impracticable. The idea was revived periodically and in 1867, Major Ryves of the Royal Engineers brought forward the idea in a practical form. He proposed the construction of “an earthen dam 162 feet high across the Periyar river and turn back the water down, cutting through the watershed”. The estimated cost came to Rs.17.5 Lakhs. The idea came up for consideration before Pennycuick, who investigated the matter and drew up a complete project plan at Rs.54 Lakhs. His proposal involved important modifications to Ryve’s proposals, amongst them being transfer of the site of the dam to a point seven miles lower down. There were however doubts as to the practicability of constructing such a huge an embankment of earth and it was not until 1882 that his proposal to construct a masonry dam was accepted. He was directed to revise the plans and the estimates for the entire project. The estimate of the direct charges came to Rs.62 lakhs. The Chief Engineer for Irrigation noted as under:
“When the Periyar dam is finished the entire aspect of the surrounding country will be changed, the beautiful and richly wooded valley drained by the Periyar and its larger tributaries being converted into a vast lake that will wind in and out of the hills, its sinuous length extending, according to Colonel Pennycuick's computation, 16 miles inland. The lake will be one of the most beautiful in the world, for it will rest among magnificent forest-clad mountains and rolling grassy uplands, having a rich growth of bamboos and other tropical vegetation down to its edge. Two little steamers or steam-launches are to ply on it, and will no doubt make the lake a popular resort among idlers and sportsmen”.
The conversion of the promise into reality was however to be a tough task. Immense difficulties arose thanks to the fact that the site of the works was a jungle 3000 feet in elevation, where rain and malaria rendered works impossible for a considerable portion of the year. The Madura Gazetteer noted that the discharge was equal to half the average flow of Niagara. The laying of the foundation was full of difficulties and the work was swept away again and again. After one such wash away incident, the Government stopped funding the project as it had doubts about the viability. Legend then has it that Pennycuick, who was so absorbed with the idea returned to England and sold his land and home to raise funds for the construction, which was later reimbursed to him. After the foundation was laid, further difficulty occurred in passing the ordinary flow of the river and the constant high freshes without damage to the masonry of the dam. Pennycuick described the operations as the most anxious, difficult and exhausting of any which had come within his experience. Working with him on the project was A.V.Ramalinga Iyer, who was to later become the first Indian Chief Engineer of the PWD. The entire working of the project was detailed in a book titled “History of the Periyar River Project” written by A.T.Mackenzie, who was one of the engineers on the job.
The project was opened in October 1895 by Lord Wenlock, the then Governor of Madras. It was deemed an engineering marvel. The cost up to the closing of the construction estimate came to Rs.81.30 Lakhs, with expenditure still to be incurred on pending works. Lord Wenlock, in a lecture as a part of the Sunday Afternoon Course at the South Place Institute, Finsbury hailed the project as under:
“I would here point out that nowhere else in the world does there exist such a fall of water so completely under the control of the hand of man, and if any one chooses to utilise it for the purpose of generating power or electricity, a splendid opportunity offers for the investment of capital and development of industries. The minimum quantity of water that will be available for industrial purposes is calculated at 600 cubic feet per second throughout the year, and the power which can be obtained from this head of water will be about 70,000 horse power. You could create sufficient electricity for lighting many of the large towns in South India, including Madras itself, and you could provide motive power to move all the traffic for over 1000 miles of the South India Railway ; and you could also work aluminium or any other product requiring the presence of electricity”.
The success of the project saw more honours for Pennycuick. In 1893, he was made a member of the Madras Legislative Council. He was conferred the C.S.I in 1895. On retiring from the Public Works Department and returning to England, he was appointed the President of the Royal Indian Engineering College at Cooper’s Hill, a post he held from September 1896 to September 1899.
Pennycuick was a man of sport too. He had a vital role to play in the Madras Cricket Club, being appointed as its Secretary in 1865. He was instrumental in moving the club from The Island to Chepauk, a move necessitated due to the construction of the Buckingham Canal. It was also to him that an approval of the plan and an appeal for a grant in aid of Rs.10000 for the construction of a new Club pavilion were submitted in 1890, when he was the Secretary of the Public Works Department. A capable cricketer himself, he bowled Bangalore to a win over Madras in the first “Madras-Bangalore” Test played in 1862. On his retirement, the Club acknowledged his services to the game and its development in the Madras Presidency. He, on his part reciprocated the warm farewell he received by instituting the J.Pennycuick Trophy, a tournament contested even today as an inter collegiate event.
Pennycuick today is deified in the belt he helped transform from an arid land to a fertile area thanks to his engineering marvel. No less than 5 major districts have benefited from this construction, made of lime stone and surkhi. Many villagers have even named their children after Pennycuick. A statue of his stands even today at the PWD office at Madurai. Not only has the project aided irrigation, it has also helped generate hydro electric power, with the water being used by the Periyar Hydro Electric project.
Pennycuick passed away on the 9th of March 1911 in England.
1. Dictionary of Indian Biography by C.E.Buckland (1906)
3. Various issues of The London Gazette
2. Mr.C.S.Kuppuraj, Retd. Senior Chief Engineer, PWD.
NOTE: This post is the full text of my article on the subject that has been published in the latest issue of Madras Musings. The article appearing in print has been published with a few minor changes to the format.