The city’s curiosity quotient went a notch higher last week when the Madras High Court asked the Union Finance Ministry to crack the mystery of a Pandiya king holding a secret Swiss bank account. The court had issued the instructions after the Central Crime Branch, Chennai filed a report claiming that a Pandiya actually had an account in the tax haven’s Credit Suisse Bank.
The case involved adjudication over the issue of legal heirs of Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar, whose inherited Sivagiri Estate has a vast property footprint across the country. In fact, in a different case, documents suggested that the estate holds prime properties within the city, like “the Cosmopolitan Club, Madras Club, Pachaiyappa’s College and Old Law College”. The claims are yet to be independently verified, but there is no denying that Sivagiri Estate is indeed very rich.
So, who opened the Swiss account? The last Pandiya king was Sadayavarman Sri Vallabha Varagunarama Kulasekara Deva Dikshitar, whose reign is attributed to the mid-18th century. Historians describe him as a weak monarch.
The period also witnessed the rise of the British East India Company’s political power in South Tamil Nadu with the company capturing Tenkasi, the Capital of Dikshitar in 1756. Besides, Credit Suisse was founded about a century later, in 1856 by Alfred Escher. So, you can safely assume that the last Pandiya king did not park his stash in the bank.
Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar was the last zamindar of the Sivagiri Estate before the government abolished the zamindari system and brought the estate under State control. Did he open a Swiss bank account? Not at all clear, but Thambiar had two sons each through his two wives besides two other “illegitimate” sons by his concubine. His family continues to squabble for a share of the estate.
The story took a major twist when a Swiss national, Giuseppe Leipoldo Cassina, started taking keen interest in it. Cassina had allegedly “tried” to retrieve the money “belonging” to the estate out of a Swiss bank account.
According to police and court sources, Cassina came to Mumbai on a tourist visa and developed a friendship with an Indian woman, Maya, daughter of Prabakar Patwardhan, and later married her. They had two children. Cassino subsequently settled in the upscale Kilpauk area of Chennai.
Later, he was introduced to N Jegannathan, who claimed he was the legal heir of Varagunarama Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiyar of Sivagiri. Jegannathan had also filed various civil suits claiming legal heirship.
When Jegannathan sought the help of Cassina to assist him in retrieving the money and assets lying in the Credit Suisse Bank, Cassina agreed to do so on a ‘commission basis’. Jegannathan then handed over the Letter of Administration (of the Pandiya property) to Cassina. Meanwhile, Cassina’s mother allegedly opposed his marriage with Maya. When she threatened that she would not part with any of her property to the son, Cassina buckled and divorced Maya.
Before the divorce, Cassina transferred Rs 1.50 crore to Prabakar Patwardhan’s account in Mumbai. With that money, a property was purchased in Injambakkam for Rs 28 lakh. Another Rs 30 lakh and Rs15 lakh have been parked in banks in Thane (Maharashtra) and Tiruvanmiyur (Chennai), according to sources.
Meanwhile, in a letter dated March 13 this year, the Swiss bank is said to have informed Cassina that it could not locate the Pandiya assets. Cassina died in a road accident in Switzerland on June 15 this year. Was it an accident or was he bumped off because he knew too much? There are no easy answers.
If you thought the Swiss trail had gone cold, hold on. A woman called Vidhya Patwardhan recently approached the high court claiming she was the legal heir of Thambiar.
Introducing herself as Maya’s sister, she said she was earlier living in Mumbai and had now settled in Injambakkam. While some claim that Vidhya is already married to Cassina’s younger brother Paulo Cassina, others say the wedding is expected soon.
According to the police, it is Vidhya who is now trying to access the Swiss bank account, for a commission. The police probe found that Vidhya was a frequent flyer to Switzerland and had been assisting Giuseppe Leipoldo Cassina in the pursuit for treasure. She had even said that she had settled in Chennai only to pursue the case.
During her trips to Switzerland, it is said that she had fallen in love with Cassina’s younger brother Paulo. Even after she came to Chennai, it is said that she had been regularly writing to the Swiss bank to get the money back. Despite repeated efforts, Vidhya could not be reached for her comments.
The Swiss angle appeared in a different case involving the estate as well, where the Madras High Court found that appellant and counsel V Chockalingam, claiming to be acting under a power of attorney, had misused the Letters of Administration obtained from the HC to illegally dispose of some of the properties.
The court on January 9 this year ordered a CBI probe into the matter.