Monson Mavunkal, the conman who sold Moses’s staff, Krishna’s dahi handi
A walking cane sold as the staff of Moses. Small earthen pots made in provincial Cherthala passed off as Lord Krishna’s favourite “dahi handi”. Paintings by someone in Kochi sold as Pablo Picasso’s art.
For close to a decade, 52-year-old Monson Mavunkal used a mixture of deceit, charm, and carefully cultivated influence to make the implausible possible. His sway spread far and wide in Kochi as he played constantly shifting roles. Motivational speaker, doctor, cosmetologist, art promoter, antique collector, YouTube star – he was everything. Until Sunday, when the Kerala Crime Branch arrested him.
In an operation that fit perfectly with the dramatic story of his life, he was arrested at a function to mark his daughter’s engagement, even as the local police station was kept in the dark.
Soon after the ceremony ended, police personnel in plain clothes swooped down on Mavunkal, evading pistol-brandishing bouncers who tried to prevent the arrest. The bouncers fled when they realised the men were from the Kerala Crime Branch. The weapons they left behind, the police soon found, were toys.
There are 14 FIRs registered against Mavunkal in various police stations across the state, with the sections ranging from 450 (cheating), 506 (criminal intimidation), 34 (impersonation) and 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property) to 471 (using forged documents) of the Indian Penal Code.
For years, he built his identity as that of a social climber. As different state police chiefs took charge over the years, he was always among the first to felicitate them, making sure there was a photograph. These photos he later used in his world of truth, half-truths and lies, making people believe that he knew people across the world, from the Sultan of Brunei to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In Kerala, even as details of Mavunkal’s deceit and crimes have started to unfold, earning him the moniker of “King Liar”, top police officers, ministers, members of Parliament, even the state Congress president, who either knew him or were photographed with him, are scrambling to distance themselves from him.
After his arrest, in connection with a cheating case where he defrauded five businessmen of ₹10 crore in Kochi,about a dozen new cases have surfaced, most of them involving cheating, forgery, impersonation, and charges of intimidation.
A senior police officer, who asked not to be named, said the list may grow as businessmen conned by Mavunkal come forward to narrate their experiences. Most, officials said, were hesitant to reveal their identities in public, fearing loss of face.
Two senior officers of IG and DIG rank will also come under the ambit of investigation, a senior officer investigating the case said. “It is a fact that there are criminal elements in police, and Mavunkal used them to further his status and illegal trade,” he admitted.
Apart from the crime branch, customs, income tax, and forest departments are now probing Mavunkal’s money trail -- and the illegal trade he was involved in since of the seized “antiques” found in his possession were made of ivory. The items include several artefacts, and 30 cars including a Dodge, a Porsche, and a Bentley.
Documents seen by HT reveal that additional director general of police Manoj Abraham ordered a thorough probe against the Mavunkal in 2019, but it was delayed. There were also recommendations to seek an enforcement directorate probe by the then DGP Loknath Behra.
S Santosh, a former associate of Muvankal’s said that most of the fake artefacts that Mavunkal sold were supplied by him. “Around 60% of his artefacts were supplied by me. I gave him a 60-year-old old walking stick which I procured from my source in Alapuzha for ₹5,000 two years ago. Later he made some changes, and it became staff of Moses. The dahi handi has a similar story,” said Santhosh, an antique collector from Kilimanoor in Thiruvaannthapuram district, who is an accused in six cheating cases.
“I have been into antique business for more than two decades. It seems he learned the tricks of trade from me. Trouble began when he stopped paying me. Besides artefacts, I arranged money for him from several sources,” Santhosh told HT from an undisclosed location. “I used to laugh when he used to present local stuff as priceless items. But since I was getting money I used to keep quiet. But finally he also cheated me of ₹3 crore,” he added.
His scams had a wide range and cheating people through the sale of artifacts was just a part of them. He branded himself as a cosmetologist from Germany, and boasted he knew of a unique treatment to remove black patches under the eyes and other skin ailments. At one point, several actors frequented his clinic, said his former driver P Ajith. PCC president K Sudhakaran said he sought week-long treatment in his clinic.
In his YouTube videos, he talked about his possessions and alleged connections including with actors Mohanlal and Mammootty. Some of his videos are 45-minutes long, giving minute descriptions of his wealth and how he managed to earn it.
Yakoob Khan, who Mavunkal allegedly cheated of ₹4 crore with a promise that he would give him a share in an upcoming international museum in Kochi, said he fell for the scheme because of Mavunkal’s proximity to politicians, bureaucrats, and senior officers. “From top politicians to police officers, they all swear they were not aware of his activities. So it is natural people like us got into his business offers,” he said.
The rise and rise
Mavunkal lived in the town of Cherlatha, 35km away from Kochi, and used to do commission-based jobs after his matriculation. He did not pass Class 12, police said. He entered the business of hiring and selling taxis, shifted base to Rajagiri in Idukki, and stayed there for more than 10 years in a rented house with his family. “When he left Cherthala, he told people he was going to the Gulf,” said P Rajendran, one of his neigbhbours.
In 1998, he was first arrested by police after an Ambassdor car he sold to a person in Idukki was found to be stolen. He was released after he returned ₹50,000 to the buyer, and told police that he was duped by car jackers.
Police officials said that he started working as a gold carrier for small jewellers in Idukki, and during this, came in contact with some gold suppliers from north India. After a couple of cheating cases were registered, in Idukki, he moved to Kochi in the early 2000s, and started cultivating sources by staying in upmarket houses that he would take on rent. Police records suggest that he changed homes at last five times in the last decade, before moving to his current residence three years ago.
A senior police officer said Mavunkal entered into “antiques” business in the early 2000s, and started collecting material from films sets, apart from his reported dealings with Santosh. “Besides antiques, he collected luxury cars and displayed them in his houses, and started cultivating links with the film industry. He allegedly cheated a Karnataka-based luxury car dealer Thyagarajan after buying eight used cars. When he approached him for payment, he was intimidated using his police connections,” alleged Mavunkal’s former driver Ajith.
Ajith said that he caught on only after his employer conducted a ₹2 crore transaction from his bank account in 2020, leading to an income tax notice.
The case that finally led to Mavunkal’s downfall was when five entrepreneurs came together after realising that they had been scammed by the man. Two of the five, MT Shameer and Yakoob, said the five paid ₹10 crore over a period of a year-and-a-half, after they were promised a share in an upcoming international museum in Kochi. Shameer said once they realised they had fallen victim to a scam, the five started collecting evidence on Mavunkal, his modus operandi, the pending cases, and the alleged connections. “We planned meticulously and started collecting details of more people conned by him. We finally approached the CM’s secretary K K Ragesh in August, and the case was handed over to crime branch,” he said.
As new details emerge every day about Mavunkal’s activities, it has triggered a political storm in the state. Some political parties have alleged that the government is leaking only selective videos and photos to portray Opposition leaders in bad light. State Congress chief K Sudhakaran, one of those seen with Mavunkal, admitted a day after the arrest that he knew Mavunkal and once sought treatment from him, thinking that he was a doctor.
I went to him as a patient in connection with a skin ailment. I was recommended by one of my old friends in Kochi. I was not aware of his past or his degree,” he said. Sudharakan allegedly visited Mavunkal’s house, which also served as a cosmetology clinic in Kochi’s Kaloor area.
He alleged the CM’s office selectively released his photos to discredit him. Besides the PCC chief, photographs of two ministers, Roshy Augustine, the minister for water resources and Ahammad Devarkovil, the minister for ports, museum and archaeology have also done the rounds in Kerala. Both ministers have, however, claimed that these photos were taken at a public function and that they did not know him personally
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state president K Surendran has sought a central agency probe against Mavunkal and the top officials who backed him. “Since many senior police officers are involved we need a central agency probe against them,” he said.
The ruling CPI(M) has asked the Congress to take action against its president in the light of fresh allegations. “I don’t know what treatment Sudhakaran got from a conman like him. He is duty-bound to explain his connection and mode of treatment,” said party acting secretary A Vijayaraghavan.