British engineer John Pennycuick adored by millions of people British India

John Pennycuick, British engineer, builder of
The Mullaperiyar Dam,Tamil Nadu
The Mullaperiyar Dam,Tamil Nadu.
During the British rule many British officials won the appreciation and love of the natives, but none could excel  John Pennycuick, British engineer who had made a niche for himself in the hearts of millions in the  southern state of Tamil Nadu, India.

John Pennycuick, born on 15 January,1841 at Pune, India was the son of one  was Brigadier-General John Pennycuick and wife Sarah. He was educated at Cheltenham College.

Following his  father's career, he joined the East India Company Military  College at Addiscombe, Surrey in 1857 to  serve  in  the  Indian subcontinent and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Madras Engineer Group in December, 1858.  He gradually rose to the rank o Major in the British Army on 8 December,1876.  His active participation in the Abyssinian campaign of 1868 won him accolades and, in recognition of his meritorious  services,  the Queen  nominated him a Companion of the Order of the Star of India.

The unique, but very tough  idea of  diverting  the westward flowing water of the Periyar river  to connect the eastward flowing  Vaigai river was first explored in 1789 by  Pradani Muthirulappa Pillai,  a minister of the Ramnad  king Muthuramalinga Sethupathy, who gave it up as he found it to be expensive and difficult to implement.  Later British engineer  Captain J. L. Caldwell, after feasibility study in 1808,  he too considered the project very expensive and  was not worth trying. After several bottlenecks in 1882, the construction of the dam was  approved  and  Major John  Pennycuick, M.E., was placed in  charge to  prepare a  revised project and  estimate which was approved in 1884  by  his superiors.
The Mullaperiyar reservoir, Tamil Nadu. en.wikipedia. org.
The location of the project was not under the British Raj  but was under the control of  the Travancore ruler, so getting  special permission  and land  lease was  a necessity.  After  the basic  ground work such as  completion of  lease agreement pertaining to use of land, water, etc., for  999 years  between  the Rajah of  Travancore and  the  British Crown, the work  began  with local  workers, troops from the 1st and 4th battalions of the Madras Pioneers and Portuguese carpenters from  Cochin who were employed in the construction of  the  coffer-dams and  temporary  dams to restrain the river water during the dam work. 

Location Mullaiperiyar
 Based on the location of the proposed river, diversion work and construction of a dam, the survey of the terrain and bedrock geology of the area was undertaken initially and it was proposed that the difficult work required special techniques to withstand hydrostatic pressure and seepage of water.  In the beginning of the project, due to  failure of the temporary embankments and coffer-dams  in times of unexpected  continuous flooding and rain, the British rulers refused to fund the project further.  The other risks were wild animals,   poisonous  insects  and  malaria.  
Undaunted and  unmoved  by  the  financial  and geomorphological constrains,   Pennycuick  raised funds  by selling his wife's jewelry to continue the work at any cost. A man with foresight  and result oriented, he was sure  that once the roadblocks were successfully tackled, the project would be a boon to thousands of people in the rain shadow, arid areas and thousands of acres would be put to use for agriculture purpose.  It meant a good source of income for tens of thousands of people in that region. 

The major hurdle of water diversion was successfully tackled and  the  dam was completed in 1895. The sad aspect of this project was that  worker mortality from  malaria  was rather high. Further, the area was a  dense jungle  and there  were  inadequate access  roads  to reach  the nearby towns for medical help.  It was claimed that had it not been for "the medicinal  effects of the native  spirit called ''arrack,'' the dam might never have been finished. Natives in the villages used to drink arrack, a local brew. It gave them resistance against diseases.

Pennycuick  worked  in  the  Public  Works Department  till January, 1896  and during  the span of  six years, he was in charge of the construction of the Mullaperiyar Dam,  an engineering marvel considering the limited technology available then . After the construction of this dam, a vast area came under irrigation finally,  discharging 2000 cusecs of water into the Vaigai river  for the arid rain shadow regions of present-day Theni, Madurai, Sivaganga  and Ramanathapuram districts of Tamil Nadu, then under the British rule as part of Madras Province (Sandes, 1935). It resulted in the irrigation of 2.23 lakh acres in this region. But for this humble, but spirited British engineer, the Mullai Periyar dam would not have come to fruition. 

Pennycuick said: "I am going to be only once in this earthly world, hence I need to do some good deeds here. This deed should not be prorogued or ignored since I am not going to be here again".

 In Southern Tamil Nadu, the people adore him and even a small kid knows his name. His name is synonymous with this famous, historical  dam and the indomitable spirit with which he completed this project.  


Nominated to the Madras Legislative Council in November 1893.

He was the last president of the Royal Indian Engineering College at Coopers Hill.

He also held the position of President of the Sanitary Board and was a faculty in the University of Madras.

He received a Telford medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers. The Australian government sought his advice for avoiding damage from flooding of the Brisbane river in 1899.


The Mullaperiyar Dam or Mullaiperiyar Dam, a masonry gravity dam on the Periyar River in the Indian state of  Kerala  is located at a height of 881 m (2,890 ft) above mean sea level, on the Cardamom Hills of the Western Ghats in Thekkady, Idukki District of Kerala, South India

It was built between 1887 and 1895 by John Pennycuick. It has a height of 53.6 m (176 ft) from the foundation, and a length of 365.7 m (1,200 ft).

Pennycuick  used lime and surki paste for construction work, giving due consideration to the gravitational force and also the pressure exerted by a huge volume of stored water. The design was such that it could  withstand tremors.

The dam was inaugurated by Lord Wenlock, the then Governor of the Madras Presidency.

The dam is  located in Kerala on the river Periyar, but  is being operated and maintained by Tamil Nadu state.

Though the Periyar River has a total catchment area of 5398 sq. km with 114 in Tamil Nadu, the catchment area of the Mullaperiyar Dam itself lies entirely in Kerala.

''Arrack'' also spelled 'arak,' is a distilled alcoholic drink typically produced in South Asia and Southeast Asia, made from either the fermented sap of  coconut flowers, sugarcane, grain (e.g. red rice) or fruit, depending upon the country of origin. The clear distillate may be blended, aged in wooden barrels, or repeatedly distilled and filtered depending upon the taste and color objectives of the manufacturer. Arrack is not to be confused with arak, an anise-flavored alcoholic beverage traditionally consumed in Eastern Mediterranean and North African countries.


 "The Mullaperiyar Conflict" (PDF). India: National Institute of Advanced Studies. 2010. p. 7. Retrieved 10 August 2012.

Sandes, Lt Col E.W.C. (1935). The Military Engineer in India, Vol II. Chatham: The Institution of Royal Engineers. pp. 28–29.
"Dams in Kerala". Kerala: ENVIS Kerala: Environmental Information System Centre (ENVIS), Kerala. p. 1. Retrieved 30 November 2011.[dead link]

Ministry of Water Resources (2 December 2011). "Mulla Periyar Dam issue". Govt. of India. Retrieved 6 December 2011.

"Mulla Periyar Dam issue". New Delhi: Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India. p. 1. Retrieved 30 November 2011.