Kerala Chief Minister to inaugurate renovated Travancore House in Delhi, but who is its real owner?

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan will inaugurate the renovated Travancore House in Delhi on Friday amidst objections from the Travancore Royal family.

ByK A Shaji

Published Aug 04, 2023 | 8:00 AMUpdatedAug 04, 2023 | 8:00 AM

Travancore House on Kasturba Gandhi Road in New Delhi. (Wikimedia Commons)

Two majestic tuskers stood saluting the conch, Lord Vishnu’s Panchajanya, atop the iron-grill gate, the entrance to the majestic bungalow on Kasturba Gandhi Marg in New Delhi.

For Delhiites, it became the Hathiwali Kothi — but for the lakhs of Malayalis in the national capital, it has been a part of their pride.

The Travancore House, as it is officially known, was the Delhi residence of the Travancore royals. The tuskers and the conch formed part of the emblem of the erstwhile princely state.

The building, constructed in 1930, followed the double suntrap architecture, a rarity in New Delhi. Now a heritage structure, the building with its massive Corinthian columns, has found itself caught in the thick of an ownership war between the Kerala government and the erstwhile royals.

Despite the dispute, the state went ahead with renovating the bungalow, built on four acres, and set up a cultural centre. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is scheduled to inaugurate the centre on Friday, 4 August.

Renovation under fire

The renovation, too, came under fire, The former royals complained to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) that the renovation destroyed the building’s heritage.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on a visit to US and Cuba

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. (Pinarayi Vijayan/ Twitter)

In a letter to the Vigilance Wing of the MCD, Adithya Varma of the former royal family alleged that the renovation was carried out without the necessary permissions, including from the Archeological Survey Department.

The ancient gate on which the emblem stood was demolished, a report said. So was a fountain. The granite flooring, too, has been changed.

The former royal family, meanwhile, urged Vijayan to drop the inaugural function besides immediately suspending all renovation works.

Claiming ownership over the prime property, the family has been maintaining that the plot was privately purchased, and hence, the government has no rights over it.

Amidst the ownership dispute, the state Cabinet convened an emergency meeting and decided to constitute a body, the Travancore Palace Management Society (TPMS) under the Charitable Societies Act to supervise the maintenance of Travancore House.

Related: Documents show Kerala lacks ownership papers of Travancore House

Composition of TPMS

The government hopes that such a move will weaken the royal family’s claim over the property that is worth several hundred crores.

Government sources said the chief secretary will be the president of the society’s governing body, while the principal finance secretary will occupy the vice-president post. Kerala’s resident commissioner in Delhi and secretaries of general administration, public works, and tourism will comprise the rest of the committee.

Travancore royal family members Aswathi Tirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, Aditya Varma and Pooyam Tirunal Gowri Parvathi Bayi . (Supplied)

Travancore royal family members Aswathi Tirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, Adithya Varma and Pooyam Tirunal Gowri Parvathi Bayi . (Supplied)

Responding to South First, Adithya Varma of the royal family said they were probing all options to protect its interests with regard to the prestigious building complex, which was classified as private property in the covenant signed between the Union of India and the princely state in 1948.

Confirming that the family has approached the Union Home Ministry, Delhi Municipal Administration, and the Kerala government seeking justice, Varma said taking the legal route was yet to be considered.

“We are watching. Let’s see how things will evolve,” the youngest prince said.

In the letter addressed to Vijayan, the family claimed ownership over the prime property, saying that around 8.195 acres of it was allotted to the Maharaja of Travancore in 1915 by the then British administrators for residential purposes at a rate of ₹1,800 per acre. The Maharaja purchased the remaining land using his money in 1934.

During World War II, the Maharaja handed over the property to the government free of cost but on the condition that it should be returned to him later.

In 1948, the building was leased out to the Soviet Embassy for 10 years for a monthly rent of ₹3,500. After the Embassy vacated the space, the building remained in a state of neglect.

Also read: How Travancore and Cochin quelled demand for shifting capital

The Kowdiar Palace’s version

Meanwhile, several prominent Malayalis in Delhi demanded the state government utilise the space for the benefit of Keralites. The Kerala government later undertook its renovation, spending ₹23.8 crore.

Kowdiar Palace

The Kowdiar Palace in Thiruvananthapuram. (Manu Rocks/Wikimedia Commons)

Varma said the family had claimed the ownership on 17 February, 2019. They approached the Land and Development Commissioner of New Delhi, requesting the transfer of ownership of the land and the building.

He said the state government had not responded to a letter from the Land and Development Commissioner.

Almost a year ago, the Travancore House grabbed headlines when the current legal heirs of a former queen of Travancore, living in Bengaluru, attempted to sell the entire property for a few hundred crore rupees.

The Kerala government issued a statement saying nobody could sell the property since the government had not entrusted it to any individual or institution.

The principal branch of successors of the royal family, whose members live at the sprawling Kowdiar Palace in Thiruvananthapuram, declared that they had no role in the controversial attempt to sell off the property to a Chennai-based realty firm.

Also read: How tapioca evolved from famine food to everyday staple

Who is the real owner?

The renovation works were stalled in 2011 and 2016 when the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) 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. The royal family said the government does not have the ownership certificate.

The iconic Travancore House now has five art galleries, conference and seminar halls, digital library, souvenir shop, Ayurveda shop, traditional costume store, and an eatery offering traditional Kerala cuisine. Its premises will also have an amphitheatre, video wall, and an outdoor exhibition area, among other facilities, the state government’s Information and Public Relations wing in New Delhi said in a statement.

“The government has not decided to hand over the building to individuals or families. We are focusing on converting it into a Kerala cultural centre, open to visitors from across the country and outside. The renovation was carried out by preserving its heritage richness,” a senior official in the General Administration Department said.

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

After Independence, when the princely states signed the accession treaty accepting the country’s sovereignty, the Union government took over the Travancore House. However, the Kerala government won it back after a protracted legal battle.

“We suspect a larger conspiracy behind the move to take away the renovated building from the state government. Why did they wait till the construction works were over,” asked CPI leader and Rajya Sabha member Binoy Viswam.

“Kerala will fight to retain the property. Since the princely states had purchased their properties using the people’s tax money, the Travancore House naturally belongs to the people of Kerala,” he asserted.