For the casual visitor, Palarpatti is like any of the hundreds of tiny hamlets that dot the lush green landscape between Cumbum and Theni in southern Tamil Nadu. Anchored by a meandering river with fertile farmlands on both sides and a stretch of modest homes cuddled together in the centre of the settlement, locals claim that around 650 families, most of whom are farmers, live here.
But, Palarpatti is unlike any other village in Tamil Nadu or anywhere else in the country for it is probably the only Indian village where a British engineer is revered as god and is worshipped even so many decades after his death.
Colonel Pennycuick, the British Engineer who built the Mullaperiyar Dam between 1887 and 1895 is that man. Huge potraits of Pennycuick have been framed and hung in every home in the village and the residents of Palarpatti take pride in celebrating the legacy of this foreigner. Even the community hall in the village has been named Pennycuick Mandapam after him.
Every year on January 14, even as everyone in Tamil Nadu celebrates Pongal, the harvest festival also known as Tamizhar Tirunal, residents of Palarpatti celebrates Pennycuick’s birthday which also happens to be on the same day.
All the villagers and their family members assemble at the community hall in Palarapatti and cook pongal, a dish made of rice and dhal, in the village centre with a huge portrait of the Britisher whose thick brooding moustache and probing eyes oversee the festivities. Later, the villagers conduct games such as Kabbadi, Kolam (Rangoli), cock fights etc. to commemorate the occasion and distribute trophies and prizes in the name of Pennycuick.
Even little children in Pallarpatti and surrounding areas in Theni district know about the British Engineer J. Pennycuick (1841 – 1911) who built the Mullaperiyar Dam and can narrate interesting anecdotes of his biography that has been embellished over the years with several interesting fictional elements adding spice to the story.
In a country where successful movie stars, politicians, sportspersons and in rare cases, physicians are seen as demigods, British engineer J. Pennycuick is probably the only engineer who is considered god and a hero of the people.
Residents of Palarpatti have enough reasons to revere Col Pennycuick as god as they believe he transformed their lives forever by undertaking the unfathomable feat of constructing the Mullaperiyar dam.
“This region is dry due to scant rainfall and the absence of any perennial source of water. Although Surliyar has been flowing here for centuries, it is highly seasonal and does not provide enough water for farming activities. At best, the Surliyar could be used to irrigate for one crop,” says Deivam, an elderly farmer from Palarpatti.
“In the absence of any steady farming activity, our ancestors had no choice but resort to other activities to make a living which are now considered illegal. Brewing arrack and waylaying travelers was the primary occupation of this region during periods of drought. And droughts were pretty regular here,” he says.
Today, even the oldest men and women in Palarpatti do not recall ever having to struggle for a meal. Ever since they have been born, the farmlands around their village have been producing two yields in a year providing them sufficient food grains to fulfill their needs as well as to sell outside. “We have been told by our parents and grandparents on how this village and other areas nearby have been transformed after the dam was built. Hence we consider this man Pennycuick as our hero and savior,” said Andi, an elderly person from Palarpatti.
Not just in Palarpatti but in several other villages surrounding Bodi such as Surulipatti, Narayanathevanpatti, Kullagoundanpatti etc., Pennycuick is a well known figure and public here pay homage to the man year after year.
John Pennycuick was born in Pune in the year 1841 to Brigadier-General J. Pennycuick and Sarah. After completing his education in England, Pennycuick returned to India in 1860 and worked in the Madras Public Works Department for several years before retiring from service as a chief engineer in 1896, a year after the Mullaperiyar dam was completed.
Incidentally, Penncuick had not always been a legendary hero in the villages of Theni district. The controversy that has been brewing over the past thirty years has probably resurrected the dead Colonel from his grave and has given him a place in the hearts of public here.
“We have started celebrating his birthday and legacy for a little more than a decade now. Until then, most people were not aware of this man or his contribution to our state,” says Mani, a 32-year-old man from Palarpatti. “Some years ago, a man from this area went to a college in the city and learnt about Pennycuick. Later, he wrote a booklet about Pennycuick and distributed it among us to educate on the Mullaiperiyar dam and the man who had constructed the dam,” he said.
Irrespective of whether this adoration in Palarpatti and surrounding areas for Pennycuick whose accomplishments are much lesser when compared to legendary engineers like Sir Arthur Cotton etc is motivated or not, there is no denial in the fact that his contribution to the village that has no perennial river and a harsh climatic conditions is immense as is obvious today.