Saravana Bhavan founder dead: How astrology led to the Dosa King's downfall

P Rajagopal, founder of Saravana Bhavan chain of vegetarian restaurants. Wikimedia Commons
P Rajagopal, nicknamed as Dosa King and founder of the famous Saravana Bhavan chain of vegetarian restaurants, died in a private hospital in Chennai on Thursday morning just two days after he suffered a heart attack. The 72-year-old surrendered before a Magistrate Court on July 8, after the Supreme Court sentenced him to lifetime imprisonment for the murder of Prince Santhakumar 18 years ago, allegedly to get married to the latter's wife as advised by an astrologer.  

He was first admitted in a government hospital after surrendering at the Court and later shifted to a private hospital in Vadapalani, Chennai, as directed by a Court order. Rajagopal, in fact, arrived in an ambulance and was carried in a stretcher, to surrender at the Court, with an oxygen mask strapped on to his face for respiratory support. He was suffering from several ailments.

Saravana Bhavan chain of restaurants, which touched Rs 3,000 crore in revenues in 2017, has around 20 outlets in Chennai and five in other parts of the country including Delhi, apart from restaurants in US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Canada, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, France, Netherland, South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia and the Gulf countries, among others.

The rise and fall of the businessman were associated with his one great flaw- his belief in astrology. 

Born in 1947, in a small village of Punnaiadi in Thoothukudi, his story is that of a rags-to-riches one. In 1968 he came to Chennai and set up a provision store in K K Nagar. While the business was running successfully, Rajagopal along with his friend decided to take over a failed restaurant and in 1981 he entered the restaurant business. The story is that an astrologer predicted that it will bring prosperity to him.

He believed in offering quality food at a clean restaurant for a nominal price. This simple idea attracted several. While the business made losses in the initial period, it slowly created a set of loyal customers and no other restaurant in the city could play catch up. This helped him grow from a single restaurant to a chain of food outlets. The focus on quality and cleanliness continued though the prices went up over a period of time. In return, they called him "Annachi" (Elder brother). 

In 1997, he wrote his experiences and ethics in a book titled Vetri Meedhu Aasai Vaithen (I have set my heart on victory) that spoke about his successes. In the beginning of the new century, the restaurant chain started expanding to other parts of the world. It began with the Middle East. Rajagopal even commanded loyalty among his staff and won accolades for keeping his employees happy. They were given the best lifestyle and even pension and support for the education of their children. Over a period of time, the brand became synonymous with any multinational quick-service restaurant and has attracted customers even by the brand name.

He was benevolent in donating to temples and other religious locations across Tamil Nadu and even outside the State. 

According to reports, Rajagopal wanted to marry Jeevajyothi, daughter of one of his employees, but the latter refused to abide. Rajagopal, at this time, already had two wives and two sons. According to local reports, the marriage with Jeevajyothi was advised by an astrologer, who insisted that it would bring fortunes and prosperity to him. Jeevajyothi was married to Santhakumar but Rajagopal was enraged.  Santhakumar was found dead in 2001, and Rajagopal was convicted by a local court and sentenced for 10 years of imprisonment, in 2004 for the crime. He served around eight months in prison and came out after the Supreme Court suspended the order. 

The lower Court's order was later upheld by the Madras High court in 2009. Rajagopal was then given life-time imprisonment instead of the 10-year imprisonment. Rajagopal appealed but the Supreme Court upheld the High Court order, leaving not many options for the Dosa King.