Built in 1882 by the then Travancore king Vishakham Tirunal Rama Varma

Conducting a wedding in the Kerala Palace complex at Courtallam in Tirunellveli district of Tamil Nadu is considered not only a prestige but also auspicious by many and each year at least 60 weddings take place there.

A day’s rent for the palace is Rs.75,000. Though this should have been revenue for the Kerala government, only a small amount of what is collected used to reach the State exchequer and since March 2010, even that had stopped as the palace complex, with its 56.6 acre compound, was converted into Tamil Nadu property in February that year.

Stay of order

The order in this regard was stayed by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on Thursday. The interim stay was on the basis of a petition submitted by Uthradam Tirunal Marthanda Varma, head of the Travancore royal family. Courtallam was part of the Travancore kingdom in the past and the palace was constructed in 1882 by the then Maharaja Vishakham Tirunal Rama Varma.

What is surprising is that in spite of the property shown on Kerala government records as an estate of the Public Works Department, there was no move from the State to retrieve the property which was secretly designated as Tamil Nadu government property in 2010 by the Tirunellveli District Revenue Officer under the provisions of the States Reorganisation Act 1956.

Kerala used to annually allocate a huge amount for maintaining the palace complex. The allocation in 2009 was Rs.20 lakh and in 2008 the government had made a special allocation of Rs.50 lakh for its renovation. Yet, the revenue from the palace complex was never shown exceeding Rs.1.5 lakh annually.

This is in spite of the claims by hospitality business circles that tourism revenue in Courtallam Township touches more than Rs.30 crore during the three- month monsoon tourism period alone. The palace, situated in the heart of the town, is occupied on all days of the tourism season.

Mafia reign

Though in the records of the government the PWD division office at Punalur is in charge of the palace, it was a Courtallam-based mafia which was in actual control with the connivance of a section of the PWD officials, according to PWD sources. Vishakham Tirunal had appointed Damodara Pandiyan as caretaker of the palace complex and since then his descendents were doing that job as a hereditary right.

The present descendent was designated as ‘watcher’ by the PWD and is paid a salary for that. But since 2008 there had been allegations that this watcher is in complete control of the palace. Every three months he travels in a luxury car to the Punalur PWD office to collect his salary of about Rs.7,000 per month.

Any tourism project at the palace mooted by the State government through the Tourism Department used to be blocked by him and at one stage, in 2009, when the mafia was on the verge of taking over the palace, the then Kollam District Collector A. Shajahan had written to the State government to deploy a police team at the complex, but in vain.

Tourism project

In fact, in 2009, the then Public Works Secretary Tom Jose had told The Hindu that on the directions of then Public Works Minister Mons Joseph, the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation had prepared a comprehensive tourism project for the development and protection of the Courtallam properties.

All the antique furniture and other valuables in the palace had been looted. Under the guise of the renovation work in 2009, even the teak panels and ceilings were looted and replaced with ordinary wood work.

Though all these facts were from time to time brought to the notice of the State government, no follow-up action had been initiated.