Why an Indian state honors a British-era colonel

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John Pennycuick is a respected figure in the state of Tamil Nadu

An Indian state has donated a bust of a British colonial-era engineer to his hometown of Camberley, England.

The statue of Colonel John Pennycuick – donated by the southern state of Tamil Nadu – will be unveiled on September 10 in a public park in Camberley, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from London.

Pennycuick is a respected figure in Tamil Nadu for the design and construction of the Mullaperiyar Dam, which provides drinking and irrigation water to five districts of the state.

The 127-year-old dam has long been a source of tension between Tamil Nadu and the neighboring state of Kerala, which has often called for its demolition.

But Pennycuick’s legacy remains strong in Tamil Nadu, especially in the five districts that draw water from the Mullaperiyar. In one of them, Theni, pictures of Pennycuick hang in shops, houses and government offices. Many baby boys are named Pennycuick, while some have named their daughters Sarah after the engineer’s mother.

“His work has not yet been fully recognized. Only people in our state [Tamil Nadu] she knew about him,” says Santhana Ibrahim, a London-based documentarian who is the driving force behind the project to install the statue.

The construction of Mullaperiyar

Pennycuick was born in the western Indian city of Pune in 1841. After receiving military training in London, he returned to India to join the British Indian Army as an engineer.

Later, he joined the public works department of the former Madras Presidency, an administrative subdivision in the south of the country.

Many shops, houses and offices in Theni district have pictures of Pennycuick

Many shops, houses and offices in Theni district have pictures of Pennycuick

There, he worked on the design of the Mullaperiyar Dam, which would transfer water from the west-flowing Periyar River to the Vaigai River, which flowed in the other direction.

In a paper entitled The Diversion of the Periyar, written around 1897, Pennycuick says that the idea of ​​building a dam had been mooted much earlier.

“Its first recorded expression dates from the beginning of the present century, when inquiries were made to ascertain whether the proposition was practical,” he writes.

But the research, carried out “somewhat half-heartedly”, found the idea “unfeasible”, according to the newspaper.

This did not deter Pennycuick, who decided to approve his plan. Construction began in late 1888.

The site chosen “was in an uninhabited jungle, seven miles from the nearest point of a cart-road, 20 miles from the nearest cultivated land,” he writes.

Construction materials were transported by boats and carts. Work had to stop for months in between due to jungle fever, and later, heavy rains and floods.

Records show between 4,000 and 6,000 laborers worked on the project, which was completed in 1895.

File photo showing the Mullaiperiyar Dam extending from the lake to a green hillside with trees

An expert calls the Mullaperiyar Dam, 881 meters above sea level, an “engineering feat”

“At the end of the 19th century we had very few dams in southern India,” says K Sivasubramaniyan, a retired professor who has studied water management in Tamil Nadu for decades.

The Mullaperiyar dam, he says, was a “great engineering feat that helped end water scarcity for the people living in five districts in present-day Tamil Nadu.”

“like god”

Desika Thiruvalan, 32, quit her job at a tech company a few years ago to oversee her family’s farms. They own about 20 hectares of land in the Thini area.

She says she is able to harvest two crops of rice every year, while her ancestors had to rely on unpredictable rains to water their crops.

“Pennycuick is like a god to us. We are blessed to have plenty of water,” he says, adding that before the dam, there were periodic famines and droughts in the area.

Desika Thiruvalan oversees her farm, with several workers cultivating the paddy

Desika Thiruvalan (right) says her family harvests two rice crops a year, thanks to the dam

Ms. Thiruvalan’s ancestor, Peya Thevar, was one of the locals who supplied food to the laborers who built Mullaperiyar.

“When my husband went to a Hindu temple to do a memorial service, he mentioned Pennycuick’s name along with those of our ancestors,” she says.

Over the years, many myths have developed around the engineer’s legacy. In 2016, Pennycuick’s great-grandson told the Indian newspaper Mint that he had “no proof” of a popular claim that the engineer used his own resources to build the dam.

While the engineer was well-known in parts of Tamil Nadu irrigated by the dam, elsewhere in the state he was unheard of.

A namesake, now 20, says that as a boy he was bullied at school because of his name.

“I was very uncomfortable and even angry at my dad for choosing it,” recalls Pennycuick, a student who uses only one name.

20-year-old student praying in front of images of Hindu gods and colonial engineer John Pennycuick

Student Pennycuick has a picture of the colonial engineer along with the pantheon of Hindu gods

Pennycuick’s father Gubendran had transferred work from Madurai district, where the engineer is celebrated, to central Tamil Nadu where he was less known. To help his son understand the meaning of the name, Gubendran took him when he was 12 to see the dam and a memorial to the engineer who had built it.

It was a life-changing moment for the young boy.

“There, I saw a statue of John Pennycuick and immediately realized how great his achievements were,” he recalls. “Tears rolled down my cheeks.”

Revival of a legacy

While the dam is in Kerala, Tamil Nadu operates it under a 999-year lease agreement to irrigate agricultural land on its side of the state border.

The dam has seen its share of controversy. In the late 1990s, Kerala expressed fears about its status, sparking years of political and legal wrangling.

In 2014, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the dam was safe, based on the findings of a panel of experts, but its water storage level had declined – and Kerala is still pursuing legal options.

“The dam helped irrigate about 340,000 acres [134,000 hectares] of land, but that has now halved,” says Prof Sivasubramaniyan.

The controversy over the dam has exhausted Pennycuick’s legacy in Tamil Nadu.

“It was only about 15 years ago that people started celebrating his birthday in public places,” says Ms. Thiruvalan.

Bust of Pennycuick given by the Government of Tamil Nadu in the UK

The bust donated by the Government of Tamil Nadu to the UK

Its supporters, however, add that celebrating Pennycuick does not mean supporting British colonialism.

“Pennycuick, because of his sheer determination, was able to build a dam that is still standing and providing us with water. We just say thank you,” says Ms Thiruvalan.

After retirement, Pennycuick returned to England. He died in 1911 at Camberley, where he was buried. In 2019, a senior Tamil Nadu police official donated a bust of Pennycuick which was placed in the garden where the engineer was buried.

Mr. Ibrahim, the director, hopes that the new statue he helped organize will interest local people in Tamil Nadu and its culture.

As for the student Pennycuick, he is content with his name and now has a dream.

“One day I’m going to see the statue of Pennycuick in England.”

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