N. R. Pillai
1st Cabinet Secretary of India
In office
Prime MinisterJawaharlal Nehru
Preceded bypost established
Succeeded byY. N. Sukthankar
5th Ambassador of India to France
In office
June 1959 - 1961
Preceded byK. M. Panikkar
Succeeded byAli Yavar Jung
Personal details
Elenkath Narayanan Raghavan Pillai

(1898-07-24)24 July 1898
Trivandrum, Travancore State, British India
(now in Kerala, India)
Died31 March 1992(1992-03-31) (aged 93)
Kensington, London, England, United Kingdom

Sir Narayanan Raghavan Pillai, of Elenkath,[1] KCIE, CBE (24 July 1898 – 31 March 1992), popularly known as "Rag", was an Indian civil servant who was the second Secretary General in the Ministry of External Affairs,[2] as well as the first Cabinet Secretary in independent India, a post he held from 6 February 1950 until 13 May 1953.[3] He also served as India's Ambassador to France.


Pillai was born in Trivandrum, Travancore State (now Kerala) on 24 July 1898, in a distinguished ancient Nair family of Elankath in South Travancore. He was a matrilineal descendant of Dewan Nanoo Pillai. Elankom Gardens in Diamond Hill, Trivandrum is named after the family's town house.[4] He read English and became a Bachelor of Arts first-class honours in 1918 from Madras University, subsequently receiving a government scholarship to study at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. There, he took the Tripos in Natural Sciences in 1921 and a Tripos in Law in 1922, both times with first-class honours.

Joining the Indian Civil Service in 1922, Pillai initially served in the Central Provinces as an assistant commissioner and as an officiating deputy commissioner from March–November 1927.[5] During his career with the ICS, Pillai was appointed to various secretarial positions in the then United Provinces. He successively served as an assistant collector of customs at Chennai (December 1927 – May 1929) and as deputy director of commercial intelligence at Kolkata (May 1929 – March 1932). He was promoted to deputy secretary in March 1932, joining the Commerce Department.[5] He was advanced to temporary joint secretary (June 1934) and to joint secretary (officiating) in February 1936, being appointed collector at Karachi in April 1936.[5] From April 1937, he was an officer on special duty with the Commerce Department, and was appointed as a deputy commissioner in July. He was promoted to joint secretary in the Commerce Department in April 1938, to additional secretary in February 1941 and finally to full secretary in October 1942.[5]

Pillai served as the Commissioner General for Economic and Commercial Affairs in Europe until 1953, residing in Paris. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Travancore in 1953. He was a founding member of the first Governing Body of NCAER, the National Council of Applied Economic Research in New Delhi, India's first economic policy institute established in 1956.

Later life

During the 1960s, he served as managing director of two business firms in New Delhi, after which he emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1968. A trail of correspondence in the columns of the London Times in the 1970s or thereabouts regarding the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens developed to include other treasures acquired by the British from various parts of their Empire and someone suggested that the legendary Koh-i-noor diamond should be returned to India. The subject was brought to a close by a letter from Pillai in which he said that, although the diamond rightfully belonged to India he felt that Indians everywhere were happy for it to remain where it was (and still is) among the Crown Jewels.[6]

In his last years, he resided at 26 Hans Place in Kensington, Knightsbridge. He died on 31 March 1992, just short of 94.

Personal life

In 1928, he married and the couple had two sons. Nisha Pillai, the former BBC presenter, is one of his grandchildren.[7]


He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1937,[8] Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) in the 1939 Birthday Honours[9] and Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (KCIE) in the 1946 Birthday Honours.[10]

Pillai was awarded the Padma Vibhushan by the Government of India in 1960 and was made an honorary Fellow of Trinity Hall, his old college, in 1970.


  1. ^ Dewan Nanoo Pillai by K. R. Elenkath, Trivandrum, 1982 see chapter titles family members
  2. ^ List of Persons, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955–1957, South Asia, Volume VIII, retrieved 8 February 2022.
  3. ^ Kapur, Harish (2009). Foreign Policies of India's Prime Ministers. Delhi: Lancer Publishers. p. 444. ISBN 9780979617485.
  4. ^ See K. R. Elenkath, supra
  5. ^ a b c d The India Office and Burma Office List: 1945. Harrison & Sons, Ltd. 1945. p. 301.
  6. ^ See Sir Raghavan Pillai; Appreciation in The Times (London, England). (15 April 1992): News: p15.
  7. ^ Pillai, Nisha. "Tandoored Legs". Outlook Magazine. Retrieved 10 October 2012.
  8. ^ "Supplement to the London Gazette, 29 January 1937". HMSO. Retrieved 13 October 2012.
  9. ^ "Supplement to the London Gazette, 6 June 1939". HMSO. Retrieved 13 October 2012.
  10. ^ "Supplement to the London Gazette, 4 June 1946". HMSO. Retrieved 13 October 2012.