Travancore House controversy: Documents prove Kerala lacks ownership certificate for New Delhi property

Rival Royal family branches and the Kerala government are fighting over ownership of the property, which is now an art gallery and museum.

ByK A Shaji

Published Nov 12, 2022 | 9:30 AM Updated Nov 12, 2022 | 1:21 PM

The Travancore House in New Delhi.

Despite being one of New Delhi’s more prestigious heritage buildings, Travancore House on Kasturba Gandhi Marg now finds itself in the middle of an intense ownership war.

Two rival branches of an erstwhile royal family that ruled the princely state of Travancore are attempting to ascertain their ownership rights on the property, disregarding the Kerala government’s claim that it holds both ownership and possession of the building and the land on which it is situated.

Responding to reports that the current legal heirs of a former queen of Travancore, who lives in Bengaluru, are attempting to sell the entire property — spread over 8.195 acres — for a few hundred crore rupees, Kerala Chief Secretary VP Joy informed South First that nobody could put it up for sale as the state government had not entrusted any individual or institution to take any steps in that regard.

Much to the relief of the government, the principal branch of successors of the royal family, whose members dwell at Kowdiar Palace in Thiruvananthapuram and earlier approached the Supreme Court and Union Ministry of Home seeking return of custody of the building, also clarified on Friday, 11 November, that it had no role in the current controversial attempt to sell off the property to a Chennai-based real-estate firm.

However, documents proving that the Kerala government lacks any ownership certificate for the prime property in Delhi surfaced late on Friday, giving the dispute a new twist.

Those who attempted to sell off the Travancore House are now circulating official letters between Kerala’s Development Commissioner in New Delhi and the Land and Development Office in Thiruvananthapuram asserting that the government does not have any ownership document for the complex.

What the local reports said

The much-touted renovation works of the complex, initiated by the state government, were stalled in 2011 and 2016 when the Delhi Development Authority sought the ownership certificate. The works resumed with the assurance that the certificate would be furnished later. But it has not been produced so far.

A former residence of the Maharaja of Travancore in New Delhi, Travancore House has always attracted the attention of real-estate honchos because of its prime and spacious location in the heart of the national capital.

As per the newspaper reports, the royal family members in Bengaluru signed an agreement with a Chennai-based real-estate developer to sell the Delhi property along with another property in Bengaluru at a relatively minor amount of ₹250 crore.

A total of 17 royal family members signed the agreement by saying half of the properties in Delhi belong to them, along with 55 acres in Bengaluru, the local reports said. One among them, Venugopal Varma, now holds the position of power of attorney, they added.

The agreement, reportedly signed on 21 October, apparently also says half of the buildings belong to the Kowdiar Palace.

In case of any dispute over the ownership, the real-estate company can approach the courts per the agreement, said the local reports, adding that ₹1 crore had been given as advance.

Royals speak up

The new developments occurred after the heritage building underwent a makeover and was converted into an art gallery and museum promoting Kerala’s history and tradition.

The state government spent ₹100 crore on its modernisation, including the construction of an open-air theatre and an eatery with traditional Kerala cuisine.

Meanwhile, Kowdiar Palace member Aditya Varma told South First that successors of the erstwhile Regent Queen who migrated to Bengaluru long ago might be behind the latest development, and somebody with ulterior motives must have misled them.

He confirmed that the Kowdiar Palace had written to the Union government a few years ago seeking allocation of the title deeds of Travancore House and the surrounding land. Nobody other than the Kowdiar Palace could sell the property, said Varma.

“The government has not decided to hand over the building to any individuals or families. Our focus is on commissioning it as a Kerala cultural centre soon for visitors from across the country and outside. In the renovation, we retained all the heritage peculiarities of the palace,” said Joy.

The history of Travancore House

According to government sources, the property was entangled in legal battles since the princely state became part of the Indian Union.

The property was initially purchased by the Travancore royal family in the 1920s when the land was offered to princely states at concessional rates in the national capital by the then-British rulers.

However, the British empire used the land later to set up communication facilities for its military forces.

The present building complex was constructed in 1930. It was converted into a barrack during World War II to accommodate soldiers.

After Independence, when the princely states signed the accession treaty accepting the country’s sovereignty, the Delhi property was taken over by the Union government. However, the Kerala government took control of the property following a protracted legal battle.

“We suspect a larger conspiracy to take away the now renovated building complex from the state government. Why did they wait till the construction works were over?” pointed out CPI leader Binoy Viswam, who is also a Rajya Sabha member.

“Kerala will fight to the end to keep the property with the state. As the princely states purchased all their properties using tax money from the people, the Travancore House naturally belongs to the people of Kerala,” he claimed.