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The downfall of dosa kingpin and Saravana Bhavan founder P Rajagopal

Born in Tamil Nadu in 1947, the son of an onion farmer came into the limelight at the turn of the century when his chain of South Indian restaurants became synonymous across the world.

July 18, 2019 / 11:23 AM IST

Founder of Saravana Bhavan. A convicted murderer.

These are the two defining aspects of P Rajagopal's life that could make the storyline of a Kollywood movie.

Born in Punnaiyadi village in Tamil Nadu's Tuticorin district in 1947, the son of an onion farmer came into the limelight at the turn of the century when his chain of South Indian restaurants became synonymous across the world.

He made international headlines again in July 2019, when the life sentence awarded to him for murdering a man was upheld by the Supreme Court. The verdict came 10 years after the Madras High Court has first sentenced him for ordering a successful hit on the husband of a woman he was obsessed with.

He surrendered in the Apex Court on July 09 after arriving in an ambulance wearing an oxygen mask. While Rajagopal had pleaded ill-health, the Court directed that he be taken into custody to serve his 15 year prison time.


He was put on ventilator after suffering a heart attack in Stanley hospital’s prison ward on July 14. He passed away in a private hospital in the morning on July 18 after suffering another heart attack the previous night.

Rajagopal was 72.

Making of the dosa kingpin

Rajagopal moved to Chennai in 1973 and opened a provision store there. In 1981, he opened a small hotel in the city's KK Nagar area. This hotel soon grew into a global restaurant chain, known as Saravana Bhavan. Belonging to the Nadar community, he is credited with entering a space that was dominated by the upper castes.

Affectionately called "annachi", Tamil for elder brother, he was popular among workers for providing free healthcare, housing stipends, and marriage fund for their daughters.

Rajagopal has had many admirers through his career mostly for capitalising on the South Indian canteen or mess culture and turning it into a successful business venture, especially in a country that considers eating out a luxury.

In the 90s, the chain had spread across the southern city of Chennai. Two years later, Rajagopal visited Singapore, where he observed the working of American burger chain McDonalds, which he formed as the base for his own multinational venture.

The first international branch was opened in Dubai in 2000, which catered largely to Indian expatriates. Paris, Frankfurt, London, New York and other international metros followed. The chain now has 39 venues in India, 43 abroad and another 16 in the pipeline, spanning five continents.

Optimising the canteen or mess culture, the chain has been described as "high-value, low-margin and labour intensive", largely hiring workers from India to service international outlets.

Downfall of the dosa kingpin

Multiple reports attribute Rajagopal's crime to his belief in an astrologer who advised him to take a third wife. The woman, the daughter of an employee, was already married to another Saravana Bhavan employee and was uninterested in Rajagopal's advances.

His obsessive pursuit of the woman started with harassment and culminated in the murder of her husband Prince Santhakumar in 2001. Santhakumar was abducted on October 1, 2001, strangulated and thrown down Perumalmalai in the Kodaikanal range. His body was found by Forest Department officials on October 31, 2001.

In 2009, the Madras HC heightened a 2004 sessions court sentence of 10 years rigorous imprisonment awarded to Rajagopal and five others associated with the Prince Santhakumar's murder. Rajagopal surrendered on November 23 that year, but was released on bail on July 15, 2003, after spending 10 months in prison.

He was later accused of intimidating Jeevajothi and her family and attempting to bribe them to deter pursuing the case further. However, 10 years later, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court sentence and ordered Rajagopal to surrender by July 7, 2019.
Jocelyn Fernandes
first published: Jul 9, 2019 09:35 pm
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