From a remote village to ruling the taste buds of Indians across the world, Saravana Bhavan founder and 'Dosa King' P Rajagopal saw it all - a meteoric rise due to dint of hard work and landing behind bars for obsession for a married woman much younger to him. However, his detailed platter of mouth-watering south Indian delicacies never disappointed his avid customers as his chain of restaurants, that includes in US and Europe, continue attracting great patronage, even as he is known in some quarters as the 'Dosa King' after south India's popular dish. What stands out, according to his regular customers, is the taste of Saravana Bhavan's 'Sambar' or chutney almost remaining the same across restaurants, what is called in Tamil as 'kaimanam.'
'Kaimanam' loosely means the uniqueness of food cooked by a person, which differs from individual to individual. On Thursday, the 73-year-old hotelier died in a private hospital here against the backdrop of having to face the ignominy of surrendering before a court to serve a life term upheld by the Supreme Court in March this year.
Hailing from Punnai Nagar village in Tuticorin, he started off as a grocer, like many from his Nadar community are known to. 'Annachi' (elder brother), as he was addressed, later treaded the uncharted territory of food business, which reportedly did not earn him profit initially. However, a determined Rajagopal is said to have turned his focus on quality, laying high stress on oil and fresh vegetables, a feature still commended by his patrons.
After a humble start in the early 80s with the opening of his first hotel at KK Nagar here, Rajagopal started dishing out quality vegetarian spread, almost mastering the art in the coming decades.
Soon, Saravana Bhavan became a household name in Tamil Nadu and a visit to one of its many outlets for a bite became a thing to brag about for the average middle class. His spread of Dosas, ranging from the humble 'saada dosa' to those stuffed with paneer or cheese, and the spicy sambar besides colourful varieties of chutney soon saw him venture out beyond Tamil Nadu like in Delhi, even as the chain spread wings across continents. However, his obsession for a married woman was going to cost him dear.
He became besotted with Jeevajothi, daughter of his former employee, who was married to Prince Santhakumar. The top court noted in its judgment earlier this year that Rajagopal initially attempted to make her his third wife and after failing in his endeavour, plotted abduction and murder of her husband.
After having helped the woman financially, in October 2001, Rajagopal got her and Santhakumar abducted, it noted. He first persuaded and then threatened them to separate so that he can marry her. Few days later, Santhakumar was again abducted and then killed.
From being the uncrowned hotelier, Rajagopal was soon being discussed for his follies vis-a-vis Jeevajothi, with newspapers and magazines carrying detailed description of what turned out to be his worst misadventure. A local court sentenced him to a 10 years imprisonment but the Madras High Court later enhanced it to life term. While upholding the life sentence given to Rajagopal for murdering Prince Shantakumar, the Supreme Court had early this year ordered him to surrender in the trial court. Following the apex court order, he surrendered before a local court and was admitted to a government hospital.
He was subsequently shifted to a private hospital in the city following a Madras High Court order on his son's plea, and died Thursday. He leaves behind a rich legacy of culinary treat, symbolised by brand Hotel Saravana Bhavan.
Rajagopal, who is survived by two sons, earned the unflinching loyalty of thousands of his employees due to his munificence. Be it providing assistance for marriages of their daughters or helping them in other ways, the multi-millionaire Dosa king, had it all.
In turn, the hotel chain owner expected the employees to provide to the customers high quality dishes and timely service, which he never compromised with. He was also known to personally visit Saravana Bhavan hotels regularly to ensure their smooth functioning.
He opened his first hotel in 1981 and the rest was history. Currently Rajagopal's Saravana Bhavan chain has presence in over 20 countries across the world, including the US and the UK, and several cities all over India.