The rise and fall of Saravana Bhavan Rajagopal: The 'dosa king' with a notorious past

The hotel baron who was convicted in the abduction and murder of Prince Santhakumar in 2001, was sentenced to serve life, a term he evaded right until his dying breath.
The rise and fall of Saravana Bhavan Rajagopal: The 'dosa king' with a notorious past
The rise and fall of Saravana Bhavan Rajagopal: The 'dosa king' with a notorious past
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P Rajagopal, the infamous founder of Saravana Bhavan, south India’s biggest hotelier, passed away in Chennai on Thursday morning at age 72. The hotel baron, who was convicted in the abduction and murder of Prince Santhakumar in 2001, was sentenced to serve life, a term he evaded right until his dying breath.

Even as news about his demise began to spread, his hotel's branches across the world continued to operate and serve people their favourite south Indian dishes.

Referring to Rajagopal as merely the founder of the Saravana Bhavan chain of restaurants would be an understatement. He went on to establish an empire through his restaurants, gaining a reputation not just within the country but around the world. Rajagopal’s story — his mighty rise and fall, enslaved by his blind faith in astrology, spurred by his own hubris and hunger for power — is one that will echo through history.

The making of the ‘Dosa King’

Rajagopal’s story has been called a rags to riches tale. Born to a poor family of farmers in Punnaiadi in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, Rajagopal moved to Chennai as a teenager. Though he began as a bus boy, wiping down tables at restaurants, Rajagopal’s move to Chennai would ultimately open many, many doors for him.

He started out by setting up a modest grocery store in Chennai’s KK Nagar in 1968, then considered the city outskirts. He then bought out a dying restaurant, Kamatchi Bhavan, and gave it a new name and look. 

Rajagopal’s deep belief in astrology began early in life. His decision to enter the hotel business in 1981 was the result of an astrologer advising him to start a line of work that involved “fire.” As much as this prediction would bring him success, another prediction, years later, would eventually cause his fall from great heights.

Saravana Bhavan was born in 1981, serving idlis and dosas with sambar and chutney at affordable prices. Today, the restaurant has dozens of franchises in India and around the world, including New York, Dubai and London, designed to cater to Indians scattered across the globe. They relied on the fact that a whiff of sambar or coffee when walking past Saravana Bhavan would immediately remind many of home.

Murugan Idli’s Manoharan, Saravana Bhavan’s competition today, was quoted by The New York Times as saying, “He brought prestige to the vegetarian business. He made a revolution.”

Rajagopal entered into a business segment that had thus far been dominated by Brahmin cooks who considered “vegetarian cooking” their area of expertise, at a time when people generally looked down upon the habit of eating out. Going out for lunch or dinner was not an idea easily digested back then. And Rajagopal, who was from the Nadar community, positioned himself with poise and confidence, catering exclusively to the middle-class south Indian vegetarian diners. He inspired several more from the community to expand their business and think big. Brands like Pothys, Saravanna Stores etc which loom over the business scene in Tamil Nadu followed the Saravana Bhavan success story.  

In almost four decades from 1981 to 2019, Saravana Bhavan revolutionised the restaurant business in the south with over 80 franchise outlets worldwide from London to Thailand. Their first branch outside India was in Dubai in 2000. In Chennai alone, they operate over 20 restaurants, according to their website.

Saravana Bhavan helped turn idli, dosa, vada and coffee into a stand-in for south Indian cuisine for Indians around the globe, these humble dishes and drinks instilling nostalgic feelings of home. Rajagopal would go on to ingrain this feeling of home and family within his employees as well, many of whom would defend him with their life. Rollo Romig in his 2014 New York Times Magazine article observes how well Rajagopal took care of his employees, the several benefits availed to them, and how they were in the habit of calling him Annachi (elder brother) and defending him with their loyalty.

Time and again, people have observed the dedication Saravana Bhavan employees showered upon their Annachi. In turn, he cushioned their lives with allowances, annual trips to their hometown, and airtight job security.

Lust for fame, a murder and the great fall

Rajagopal married his first wife Valli in 1972 and the couple had two sons, Shiva Kumar and Saravanan. He would then go on to marry again, a woman named Kiruthika in 1994, the wife of one of his employees. Though neither of those marriages worked, Rajagopal was not discouraged.

Around 1999, Rajagopal turned his attention to Jeevajyothi, the daughter of one of his employees at Saravana Bhavan. Rajagopal held a deep desire to marry her, after an astrologer told him that taking her as his third wife would improve his fortunes. Jeevajyothi, however, was not interested in this proposition and was instead in love with Prince Santhakumar, who was her brother’s math teacher. She ended up marrying Santhakumar, much to Rajagopal’s chagrin.

Despite her resistance, Rajagopal continued to harass the couple, even after they were married. In 2001, Jeevajyothi, Santhakumar and her family were on their way to Tiruchendur when Santhakumar was abducted on the way. His body was discovered hundreds of kilometres away, in Kodaikkanal, a few days later. He had died due to asphyxiation.

In 2004, a sessions court found Rajagopal and his close aide Daniel guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced them to 10 years in prison. His sentence was suspended by the Supreme Court after eight months of imprisonment due to health reasons. Rajagopal had appealed to the Madras High Court by then. The High Court enhanced his conviction to murder and awarded an increased sentence of life imprisonment.

Rajagopal was not a man to give up. He challenged the sentence in the Supreme Court, but in March 2019, the SC upheld the High Court’s verdict. It gave him 100 days’ time – till July 7 – to surrender and begin his jail term. Rajagopal evaded sentence once again on July 7 when he cited health reasons and failed to surrender. He moved the Apex court to extend the deadline stating that his health condition was bad. The Apex Court, on July 9, trashed his petition and told him to surrender immediately.

But Rajagopal’s underhand dealings or fall from grace did not appear to stop the rise of Saravana Bhavan. While he was plotting the murder of Jeevajyothi’s husband, foundations were likely being laid in Dubai for the first overseas restaurant. Even while he was convicted for murder in India, Saravana Bhavan went on to open branches around the world. In 2003, when he stepped foot in jail for the very first time, Saravana Bhavan expanded to Canada, Oman and Malaysia.

Rajagopal and Saravana Bhavan almost seem like two different faces of the same coin. “It helped that Rajagopal has little interest in personal fame; he promotes the restaurant’s brand, not his own, which makes it easier for customers to compartmentalize,” Romig writes in The New York Times.

But did Rajagopal ever regret his relentless pursuit of Jeevajyothi and the murder of Santhakumar? In the NYT article, Rajagopal at first denies, “I used to pray to my god, why was I punished for someone else’s mistake?” he asks.

Later in the interview, there’s a brief slip. When asked what he liked least about his work, Rajagopal says, “I don’t like employees drinking and lying. If you ask me, I don’t like that I went after Jeevajyothi,” he says, when his aide, Ganapathi Iyer, quickly intervenes, “Sir, not that. Just office work, office work.”

As quick as his ascent was, Rajagopal’s fall from grace was mighty, but how much did his brand suffer? His son, Shiva Kumar, was arrested in 2008 on charges of human trafficking but this did little to shake Saravana Bhavan’s stronghold in foreign countries. Thousands continue to throng to Saravana Bhavan outlets every day, relishing the crispy dosas and soft idlis they serve.

In the end, it seems to have worked in Rajagopal’s favour. The man, although riddled with ill health, successfully evaded his life-term, and had not spent a single night in jail after the SC's confirmation of his sentence.

(With inputs from Megha Kaveri)

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