Saravana Bhavan owner, P Rajagopal, dies at 72

Saravana Bhavan owner, P Rajagopal, dies at 72

The incident comes days after he surrendered to serve life term in a murder case.

(Wiki Commons)

P Rajagopal, the seventh-standard school dropout who built a restaurant empire through his sheer hard work and perseverance spreading wings across the globe but ended up in jail for ordering the murder of a man whose young wife he wanted to marry, died here at the age of 72.

Rajagopal, the founder of Hotel Saravana Bhavan the quintessential South Indian vegetarian restaurant known not just for its mouth-watering dishes but for the cleanliness and services offered at its outlets, breathed his last at around 10 am in a private hospital where he was wheeled into on Tuesday night.

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He suffered a heart attack a few days ago at the Government Stanley Hospital where he was admitted following his surrender before a court on July 9 to serve life imprisonment for the 2001 murder of Prince Santhakumar, the husband of the woman, Jeevajothi, whom Rajagopal wanted to marry as his third wife.

Rajagopal’s life imprisonment awarded by the Madras High Court was upheld by the Supreme Court in April this year. The court had also ordered him to surrender before July 7. But the millionaire hotelier moved the apex court on July 8 seeking more to surrender but showed himself up before a court in Chennai following the rejection of his plea.

Born in Punnaiyadi, a nondescript village near Tiruchendur in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu, Rajagopal dropped out of school when he was in seventh standard and moved to Chennai, then Madras, along with friend. After doing some menial jobs, Rajagopal opened a vessels store, then a departmental store before finally venturing into the restaurant business that made him famous across the globe.

In 1981, Rajagopal leased a failed restaurant in posh K K Nagar and rechristened it as Hotel Saravana Bhavan, naming his venture after his desired god, Lord Murugan. From a single outlet, Saravana Bhavan grew into a chain of restaurants in the decades to come with branches in 23 countries across continents besides outlets in Chennai, Kanchipuram, Vellore and New Delhi.

The restaurants became an instant hit among the middle-class in Chennai not just for the tasty food but for the hygiene and cleanliness that were the hallmark of Saravana Bhavan’s success.

Rajagopal, known for his hard work and treating his employees as his own family that earned him the sobriquet ‘Annachi’ (elder brother), had a weakness for women that finally did him in. Though he was 54 and had two wives then, the Saravana Bhavan founder wanted to marry Jeevajothi, daughter of his staff, in 2001 despite knowing that she had entered into a wedlock with her boyfriend Prince Santhakumar.

Rajagopal is said to have pursued Jeevajothi out of his interest for her and due to an advice by astrologer that he would achieve much more in life if he takes the woman as his third wife. With all his efforts to convince Jeevajothi failing, the hotelier ordered the murder of Shanthakumar, who was found dead in Kodaikanal in 2001.

Convicted for murder of Shanthakumar, Rajagopal was sentenced to 13 years in jail by a trial court in Poonamalle. However, the Madras High Court enhanced the sentence to life imprisonment. The appeal by Rajagopal against the verdict was rejected by the Madras High Court in April this year which asked him to surrender by July 7.

Citing health reasons, Rajagopal knocked at the Supreme Court on July 8 seeking time to surrender. After his appeal was rejected, he was taken to the court in an ambulance and was shifted to a government hospital. On Tuesday, he was transferred to a private hospital on the orders of Madras High Court for treatment.