Saravana Bhavan: Dosa, With a Side of Murder

Around 20 years ago, a Chennai court convicted the infamous restaurant chain’s founder of murder. What happened next was equally surprising.

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P. Rajagopal, founder of the Saravana Bhavan food chain, on a menu at one of the popular restaurants in Chennai (ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Mehr Singh


April 17, 2023


10 min

On October 31, 2001, in the idyllic South Indian resort town of Kodaikanal — rife with granite cliffs, grassy hills, waterfalls, and lakes — Tamil Nadu police discovered a sarong on the road, accompanied by the body of a young man. Ligature marks indicated that he most likely died from someone strangling him with the sarong.

Two days prior, goons had kidnapped the man, a math tutor named Santhakumar, and his wife, Jeevajothi, and driven them to the state’s hinterlands to “remove witchcraft” imposed on them. Jeevajothi, who survived the attack, turned out to be the daughter of an employee of P. Rajagopal, the state’s, if not the country’s, most prolific restaurateur. P. Rajagopal had long had his sights on Jeevajothi, and not only rode in the van with the duo that fateful day, but also ordered his henchmen to murder Santhakumar. 

While most South Asians have heard of Saravana Bhavan — the vegetarian, quick-serve South Indian food franchise, few know its owner’s inconceivable tale. Yet, nearly two decades since details of the gruesome murder have emerged, Saravana Bhavans around the world continue to swell with fans searching for the perfect dosa and filter coffee.

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