Trailblazers – The First Women Engineers in Kerala : Er. Joy Abraham Kallivayalil

Education was not something women in Kerala could aspire to, at the turn of the 20th century. Even educated and progressive parents thought it fit and right to marry off  their girls, once they completed their school education. Despite the odds, two girls, one in Thiruvithamkoor and another in Kochi State, were determined to go to College, that too to obtain a professional degree in Engineering. Fortunately their parents were able and willing to help the girls attain their near impossible dream.

A College of Engineering had been established in Thiruvananthapuram in 1939, thanks to the foresight of the all powerful Diwan, Sir C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer. But admitting girls for the tough engineering course was something unthinkable.

The only other option was to somehow secure admission in the oldest technical education institution in India and indeed the whole of Asia, the College of Engineering, Guindy, Madras. The college was started by the East India Company in 1794 as the School of Survey. It was renamed Civil Engineering School in 1859. The next year, in 1859 the institution was declared a College with the introduction of a course in Mechanical Engineering.

However girl students were still taboo in Engineering Colleges even in the 1930s. A fortuitous turn of events helped the College create history. A Malayalee, Dr K.C.Chacko had assumed charge as the Principal. Chacko was the first Principal to hold a Doctorate in Engineering. The Professor of Electrical Engineering A Subarao had a daughter, A Lalitha, whom he wanted to be admitted for engineering studies. Lalitha had been married off at the age of 15. Three years later, when her child was only two months old, her husband died. Subbarao did not want his daughter to rot as a young widow. The Director of Education, W.C Chatham was also sympathetic and Lalitha was admitted as the first girl student in 1940. This gave the opening for Dr Chacko to admit the two girls who turned up some months later, P.K.Thresia from Kochi, and Leelamma George from Thiruvithamkoor.

 There were only three courses available, Civil, Mechanical and Electrical. The duration of the course was four years. The first three years common classes and the branches were allotted only at the start of the final year. Thresia and Leelamma were allotted Civil Engineering, while Lalitha opted for Electrical Engineering at the end of the third year. There was no ladies hostel and Thresia and Leelamma had to commute every day for the classes from the distant city, to Guindy in the suburbs. Lalitha was fortunate to stay with her father in the campus.

The Second World War was at its peak. The immense strain on resources forced the government to order that the duration of the engineering courses to be cut by six months. The three girls were deemed to have completed their degree course after three and a half years. Degrees were conferred in 1944. Interestingly, the Vice Chancellor had to strike out the ‘He’ on the Degree Certificate, and pen in ‘She’ in it’s place.

 Lalitha stayed back in the campus to earn her Masters degree, and help her father in his Research. She joined the Associated Engineering Company (AEC), a British firm after a few years. Thresia and Leela returned to their home States to join the Public Works Departments.

Left to Right: Thresia, Leela, Lalita.

P.K.THRESIA.

P.K.Thresia was born in a village called Edathuruthy near Irinjalakuda, in the small kingdom of Kochi, as the daughter of Kakkappan and Kunjilachy Panikulam, the third among the six children. Kakkappan was a wealthy agriculturist and was the manager of the St Mary’s High School Kattoor where Thresia had her schooling. Thresia was a brilliant student. Her father was determined to give her the best education possible, rather than marry her off young, as was the custom in the Syrian Catholic community to which the aristocratic Panikulam family belonged.

However Kakkapan had died by the time Thresia finished her engineering, and it fell on her mother Kunjilachi to bring up the children and manage the properties. On her return from Madras in 1944, Thresia was immediately inducted into the Cochin Public Works Commission as Section Officer. After receiving steady promotions she was put in charge of the construction of the TB sanatorium at Mulamkunathukavu, Thrissur as Assistant Construction Engineer. (The campus houses the Thrissur Medical College and the University of Medical Sciences today).

After the formation of the Kerala State in 1956, integrating Thiruvithamkoor, Kochi and British Malabar, Thresia was promoted as Executive Engineer and posted in PWD Division Ernakulam. The division consisted of the present Ernakulam and parts of Kottayam, Alapuzha, Idukki and Thrissur districts. After serving for nine years, in 1966 she was promoted as Superintending Engineer, PWD Buildings & Roads Circle, Kozhikode.  In 1971, the State Cabinet promoted P.K.Thresia as Chief Engineer Irrigation, in place of A Haridas, who was on leave. She retired in 1979 as Chief Engineer (B&R) after a distinguished career as Chief Engineer for eight years. Thresia never married, and devoted all her time and energy to her profession. In 1980 she was diagnosed with brain tumor and underwent surgery in Boston, United States in 1981. However on return, her condition worsened and was admitted to St.John’s Medical College, Bangalore, where she breathed her last.

The entire infrastructure of the State up to the 1970s, including major Roads, Bridges and Buildings, including the Calicut Medical College, bears her indelible mark as a brilliant and capable engineer.

LEELA GEORGE KOSHY.

Leela was born on 30 March 1923 at Thiruvalla, as the eldest child of A.K. George Kalyanaserril, Ayroor and Annamma Kovoor. She had her schooling in Nicholson High School, Thiruvalla. George having had his higher education in England, was a progressive father and wanted the best for his brilliant girl. After her intermediate studies, George got Leela admitted in Christian Medical College Ludhiana for MBBS in 1938.  Leela was only 15. In the second year, the dissection of dead bodies as part of the Anatomy studies was beyond her. She got terribly homesick and forced the authorities to send her home. Her father was determined that she continue her studies at Lady Hardinge Medical College, but again she was so terribly frightened with dissection, she finally quit.

Her father was not the one to accept defeat and with the help of the Principal Dr.K.C.Chacko, got Leela for engineering studies at the College of Engineering, Guindy, Madras. Leela opted for Civil Engineering and passed out along with PK Thresia and A Lalitha, after the course was cut short to three and a half years due to World War II.

On return she joined the Travancore Public Works Department as Supervisor. (The post was renamed in later years as Junior Engineer and after a few decades as Assistant Engineer).  The Dewan, Sir C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer and the Amma Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bai ( mother of the ruler Sree Chithira Thirunal) were keenly interested in her career and wanted her pursue higher studies in England. But the prospect of the long and tedious travel by ship, and staying alone in a distant country for 4 years, dissuaded Leela. The promise of a promotion on her return, finally tilted the scale, and Leela set sail to England for higher studies in Town Planning.

Leela returned in 1947, but fate was to take some cruel turns in her career. Her father had died in 1945 and royal rule had been replaced by a popular government. The Government ignored the promise of the previous rulers and her rightful claim for promotion was denied.  

Leela George got married to T Koshy, Koppara, an officer in the Accountant General’s Office Thiruvananthapuram in 1949. Koshy was the grandson of the great revival preacher Rev. T Koshie, popularly known as ‘Athmopakari Achan’. Leela and Koshy were blessed with three sons, Thomas, Abraham and George.

She served in various capacities in the Public Works Department including the design of major structures. The prime residential colony of Jawahar Nagar in Thiruvananthapuram was planned and developed by her at a time when residential colonies were a novel concept in Kerala.

 However fate was to play yet another cruel trick. A turn in the history of the State had a devastating impact on her professional career. After independence, the kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin were integrated into a new State, Thiru-Kochi, in 1949. Consequently the service cadres were also integrated and a new PWD cadre was formed.

Kochi being a small State with very few engineers, Thresia had received a number of promotions and she was declared senior to Leela in the unified cadre.  The same seniority list was continued even after the integration of States and the formation of Kerala State in 1956. While Thresia was promoted as Chief Engineer, Leela was forced to retire as Deputy Chief Engineer in 1978.

Soon after her retirement, Leela was diagnosed with breast cancer. The treatment was successful and she live on for another 11 years, till she succumbed to a heart attack on 17 May, 1988.

The two pioneer lady engineers of Kerala became the beacon for thousand of girls to pursue Engineering, in later years. Today, thousand of lady engineers from Kerala are serving with distinction in all parts of the World.

[Er. Joy Abraham Kallivayalil is a retired engineer of the PWD. An alumnus of the National Institute of Technology (NIT) Calicut ( formerly Regional Engineering College), Joy is an avid reader and a history enthusiast.]

4 thoughts on “Trailblazers – The First Women Engineers in Kerala : Er. Joy Abraham Kallivayalil”

  1. I was able to read out all the previous issues to my Amma (Sumangala) and she really liked all of them. She has gone , leaving a huge void. I will continue to follow the posts and imagine reading out to her. Although she could not write or converse in English, she could perfectly comprehend. I am eagerly waiting for the coming issues and hope all these articles will be brought out in book form. With regards : Ashtamoorthy

  2. Thanks for insightful article. I have learnt the name of P.K. Thresia as the first woman chief engineer of Kerala, as part of general knowledge in my degree days. The name stays with me as my mother also is Thresiamma. ( Interestingly the first woman superstar of Malayalam cinema Miss. Kumari was also Thresia)

  3. I am one of 3 sons of Leela George Koshie. Thank you for the nice article on our mother. We were not aware of some of the details…
    Incidentally her date of birth is 30th March and not 30th May!

Leave a Reply