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...

been consigned to the river at the behest of Pennycuick ahead of the opening of the sluice gates. We find a scant bit of history in Cumbum at the house of the descendants of Angur Rawther, Pennycuick’s contractor and supplier of labour and provisions. Rawther’s grandson, silver-haired Jafferulla, has preserved records of his family’s association with Pennycuick, including a note of thanks from the Government of Travancore for hosting dignitaries on their visits to the Periyar project.

In Thekkady, on the inter-state border, where the language changes abruptly to Malayalam as though we flicked a switch, the Rawthers still grow cardamom on lush slopes dotted with resorts. This side of the border, Pennycuick’s bust is the centrepiece of a well-tended garden facing the PWD bungalow at the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, where the artificial lake formed by the damming of the river is an important habitat for elephants and other wildlife. The 777-sq-km area was declared a sanctuary in 1934 and by 1978, it had become Kerala’s only tiger reserve. “All this tourism here is because of Pennycuick and the dam. But Kerala will never acknowledge him,” says a PWD worker, on condition of anonymity.

In Tamil Nadu, Pennycuick is both hero and victim. His face has became a trope for the troubled history of Mullaperiyar and a receptacle for political interests after the two states came to a head in the late 1970s. Photoshopped posters of chief minister Jayalalithaa and MDMK’s Vaiko sharing the stage with Pennycuick’s likeness are now plastered on public walls across the Cumbum valley. The Colonel even has his own fanclub, the Pennycuick Rejuvenation Forum led by O Andi of Palarpatti, a village near Thevaram in the Cumbum valley that hosted Pennycuick’s grandson in 2003. In December 2011, Andi led an agitation by over 1,200 farmers against Kerala’s stance on the dam. “We used Pennycuick’s posters to communicate our point of view — that the dam, after it has been strengthened, poses no threat to Kerala,” says Andi, in his dimly-lit home where a wall with a large, garlanded poster of the Englishman is the first thing that meets the eye. “We have been working for a decade to raise awareness about the great man,” says Andi, who began printing and distributing pamphlets on Pennycuick while still in college. “Not many people had heard of him before the Mullaperiyar issue became a movement in these

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