The Flavorful Journey of P. Rajagopal
The Flavorful Journey of P. Rajagopal from Sarvana Bhavan to Scandal

Rajagopal was a man who rose from humble beginnings to become the founder of Saravana Bhavan, one of India’s most celebrated restaurant chains, with life as flavorful as the food he served. His story is a saga of success, wealth, and power – but also of murder and intrigue. A self-made entrepreneur, he built an empire of over 111 restaurants, serving authentic South Indian cuisine across India and abroad, which earned him the name ‘Dosa King’. But behind the success of this empire lay a story of murder, power, and scandal that ultimately brought him down.

Rajagopal was born in 1947 in the small village of Punnaiyadi in Tamil Nadu, India. Son of an onion farmer in Tuticorin, he grew up in poverty and lacked education. He started from being a bus boy, then toiling away at restaurant tables. His journey eventually took a fateful turn when he went to Chennai to unlock a world of opportunities that would propel him to the dizzying heights of success.

There, he started as a grocery store owner in K.K. Nagar, Chennai, in 1978. In 1979, as a hungry salesman scouring KK Nagar for a decent meal, the seed of an idea began to sprout in his hungry brain with no restaurants in sight, and thus the legendary restaurant chain was born.

Rajagopal’s rise to fame was impressive. Following his astrologer’s advice to start a business associated with fire, he began by buying out a small dying restaurant, Kamatchi Bhavan. He hired 2 employees and gave the restaurant a new name. His venture was an instant success, thanks in part to the authenticity of its food and the affordable prices. But he had bigger ambitions. He wanted to expand his empire and make Saravana Bhavan a household name across India and beyond.

With his sights set on global domination, he took a bold leap forward in 2001 by inaugurating his maiden international restaurant in the shimmering metropolis of Dubai. The resounding success of this venture set the stage for a flurry of expansion, as his brand quickly spread its wings to other corners of the globe with over 80 outlets in 20 countries, leaving a trail of satisfied diners in its wake who wanted a touch of home away from home.

As the restaurant chain flourished and expanded, he never forgot the contributions of his hardworking staff, showering them with ever-increasing perks and benefits that reflected his gratitude. Therefore, to the loyal employees of Saravana Bhavan, the restauranteur was more than just a boss – he was their “annachi” or elder brother, a steadfast pillar of support through thick and thin.

But Rajagopal’s rise to business success was marred by a dark chapter in his life – the murder of Prince Santhakumar. The ‘Dosa King’ believed in living life on his own terms, even when it came to matters of the heart. After tying the knot with his first wife, Valli, in 1972 and fathering two sons, Shiva Kumar and Saravanan, he wasn’t content, so he tied the knot again, this time with Kiruthika, the wife of one of his employees. This union, too, did little to quench his thirst in the pursuit of happiness. Intrigued by the possibility of wealth and joy, the starry-eyed man sought counsel from his astrologer, who prophesized that tying the knot for the third time with a certain Jeevajothi would pave the way for him to join the likes of the country’s most prosperous. Enamoured by grandiosity, he set out to wed his third prospective bride.

Jeevajothi, then the apple of Rajagopal’s eye, was none other than the daughter of an assistant manager at one of Saravana Bhavan’s Chennai branches. Though the wealthy and powerful founder made numerous advances, Jeevajothi refused to be swayed. Instead, she followed her heart and wedded her true love, Prince Santhakumar; ring a bell? Blinded by his obsession and consumed by his desire, he continued making shameless advances and resorted to intimidation tactics towards the couple.

In a chilling incident, the couple was abducted in October 2001, only for Santhakumar to meet a gruesome end at the hands of the captors. To the horror of the authorities, the victim’s body was discovered a few days later, deep inside the impenetrable Tiger Chola forests in Kodaikanal, by a team of forest department officials. The post-mortem report revealed that he had met his demise through a suffocating throttling. The culprit had left behind damning evidence in the form of the cloth used for this heinous act.

And much to our little suspense, P Rajagopal – the famous restauranteur, orchestrated the gruesome murder of Jeevajyothi’s husband in a bid to marry her. But as fate may have it, while Rajagopal’s evil intentions were playing out in a sinister plot to snuff out the life of Jeevajyothi’s husband, it was then when Saravana Bhavan’s first overseas restaurant got established in the glitzy city of Dubai.

Hoping to marry Jeevajyothi following the murder of Prince, his sinister plan was foiled when he and 8 of his cohorts were convicted of homicide in 2004 and were sent to prison for 10 years by a lower court. The funny bit is that this year also saw the opening of multiple restaurant branches in far-flung destinations such as Canada, Oman, and Malaysia, just as the troublemaker was stepping into prison for the first time.

However, the wheels of justice did not stop there, for the unrelenting Rajagopal appealed the verdict to the Madras High Court. Little did he know that his insidious actions would catch up with him as the High Court upheld the Lower Court’s decision. The High Court also went one step further by pronouncing a life sentence on the offender in 2009.

With the sentence came a looming shadow of Rajagopal’s crimes over the brand. Some customers boycotted the chain, citing the founder’s history of violence and abuse. Others continued patronising the restaurants, arguing that the food was too good to resist.

Much to his dismay, Rajagopal appealed again, but this time to the Apex Court. In a fitting finale to the long-drawn saga of his deeds, the Apex Court of India delivered a damning verdict on 29th March 2019, confirming the life sentence handed down to Rajagopal for his murderous ways.

Per the orders of the Supreme Court, Rajagopal had to submit himself to the authorities by 7th July 2019. However, the tycoon’s legal counsel tried to secure an extension of bail on medical grounds. Their hopes were dashed to the ground as the Supreme Court dismissed their plea with a stern order for Rajagopal to “surrender immediately”.

With desperation written large on his face, he made one final bid to wriggle out of the jaws of justice by seeking exemption from surrender, arguing that his hospitalisation period should be counted as time served behind bars. But, unmoved by his ploys, the Court swiftly rejected his desperate plea.

However, in a strange twist of events, the despicable Rajagopal had one last trick to cheat the jaws of justice. The restauranteur-turned-criminal managed to elude his life sentence as he succumbed to a heart attack, evading even a single night in prison after the Supreme Court’s confirmation of his crime.

Despite all this, Saravana Bhavan continued to thrive as it evolved into a cultural institution, loved by millions for its affordable and delicious dosas and idlis that reminded them of home. The success of Sarvana Bhavan, both domestically and internationally, can be attributed to Rajagopal’s idea of dissociating the brand from its founder. For despite the restaurant’s continued prosperity, the founder’s legacy will forever be linked to controversy and murder.

Rajagopal’s death marked the end of an era for Saravana Bhavan. The murder of Prince Santhakumar was a shocking crime that exposed the dark underbelly of the Sarvana Bhavan Empire. But it also opened up new questions about the relationship between business success and personal morality. Can we separate the man from the brand? Should we continue to support companies that have a dark past?

One thing is for sure – the story of P. Rajagopal will continue to be talked about for years to come. This rags-to-riches tale that ended in tragedy is a reminder of the dangers of unchecked ambition for success.


For Hindi readers: 

Previous articleA Day in the Life of a Food Delivery Agent
Next articleFrom Outsider to Insider: AAP’s Journey in Redefining Indian Politics
Andrew has been in the online publishing industry. After receiving his degree in professional journalism from the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, he contributed to multiple websites as a freelance writer and feature editor. Mostly, Andrew tackles controversies and theories that lead to a specific conclusion that either debunk or justify a particular claim. Further, Andrew participates in social developments that aim to simplify every individual's way of life and fight for peace. He is the new Editor-in-Chief of Pressroom Today.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here