SPECIAL REPORT

Will temples say yes to Modi's gold buy-back plan?

Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone visiting the temple on Thursday. She was mobbed by reporters and cameramen as devotees looked on. Mr T. Muthu (left), a businessman, eating breakfast with his son, Shanmugam, after offering prayers at the the temple
A devotee lights a lamp and offers prayers outside the main temple.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MAILAM KUMAR
Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone visiting the temple on Thursday. She was mobbed by reporters and cameramen as devotees looked on. Mr T. Muthu (left), a businessman, eating breakfast with his son, Shanmugam, after offering prayers at the the temple
Mr Palani, a barber, at the entrance of the Kalyana Katta, or community hall, where people go to receive tonsure in Tirumala.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MAILAM KUMAR
Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone visiting the temple on Thursday. She was mobbed by reporters and cameramen as devotees looked on. Mr T. Muthu (left), a businessman, eating breakfast with his son, Shanmugam, after offering prayers at the the temple
Pilgrims making their way into the Lord Venkateswara Temple (above) to offer prayers and catch a glimpse of the deity. Every day, between 60,000 and 100,000 pilgrims visit the temple.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MAILAM KUMAR
Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone visiting the temple on Thursday. She was mobbed by reporters and cameramen as devotees looked on. Mr T. Muthu (left), a businessman, eating breakfast with his son, Shanmugam, after offering prayers at the the temple
An overview of the temple and its sprawling grounds.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MAILAM KUMAR
Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone visiting the temple on Thursday. She was mobbed by reporters and cameramen as devotees looked on. Mr T. Muthu (left), a businessman, eating breakfast with his son, Shanmugam, after offering prayers at the the temple
Pilgrims boarding the free bus service (above) in Tirumala, the temple town.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MAILAM KUMAR
Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone visiting the temple on Thursday. She was mobbed by reporters and cameramen as devotees looked on. Mr T. Muthu (left), a businessman, eating breakfast with his son, Shanmugam, after offering prayers at the the temple
Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone visiting the temple on Thursday. She was mobbed by reporters and cameramen as devotees looked on.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MAILAM KUMAR
Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone visiting the temple on Thursday. She was mobbed by reporters and cameramen as devotees looked on. Mr T. Muthu (left), a businessman, eating breakfast with his son, Shanmugam, after offering prayers at the the temple
Mr T. Muthu (left), a businessman, eating breakfast with his son, Shanmugam, after offering prayers at the the temple. The waiting time to offer prayers can be up to 16 hours.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MAILAM KUMAR
Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone visiting the temple on Thursday. She was mobbed by reporters and cameramen as devotees looked on. Mr T. Muthu (left), a businessman, eating breakfast with his son, Shanmugam, after offering prayers at the the temple
The spiritual head of Sachkhand Nanak Dham, Sant Trilochan Darshan Das (in orange), from the northern state of Punjab, with a group of his followers at the temple last Thursday.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MAILAM KUMAR

Indian PM hopes the tonnes of 'idle' gold donated to temples can be returned to Indian economy

At the Sri Venkateswara Swamy (Lord Venkateswara) Temple  in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, a dozen retired bank officials sit cross-legged on the floor, stacking Indian and foreign currency notes in a glass room facing the ancient temple's gold-plated interiors.

A few metres away, far from prying eyes, more men sort diamond-studded gold ornaments from pure gold coins and ornaments - all given by devotees - and stash them in the temple vault.

It is a high-security operation, with a dozen eagle-eyed officers - some atop bullet-proof watch towers - standing guard.

The gold is just a glimpse of the enormous wealth of the temple, which has six tonnes deposited in the bank. The deity's gold jewellery is estimated to be worth billions of rupees.

"Even a tiny nose pin is accounted for. We have records of everything that is given by devotees," said Mr E.C. Sridhar, deputy executive officer in charge of volunteers who sort out the gold and money in the hundi - a donation pot made out of white cloth hanging from the ceiling.

Every month, the temple collects 80 to 85kg of gold, worth about S$4.5 million to S$4.8 million at today's price.

According to the World Gold Council, Indian temples have an estimated 2,000 tonnes of gold and that is a precious resource Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes his government can get its hands on.

Mr Modi wants this "idle" gold brought back into the economy through a gold-monetisation policy to be launched on Dhanteras, the beginning of Deepavali festivities, on Thursday. (Many buy gold to mark Dhanteras.)

As the world's biggest buyer of gold, India only spends more on oil imports and the government hopes the monetisation scheme can cut the gold bill, which last year was US$31.2 billion (S$43.8 billion).

An earlier monetisation policy introduced in the 1990s failed due to low interest rates of 0.75 per cent and a minimum requirement of 500g, an amount then considered too high.  The government hopes to tap the temples and lure them this time with higher interest on their gold, which will either be sold or lent to jewellers through banks. While the interest rate is yet to be revealed, this time, the minimum deposit is 30g.

  • Tonsure tradition a mane money-maker

  • Ms S. Lakshmi, 43, perches on a low wooden stool and bends her head towards a female barber holding shaving cream and a long-handled blade.

    Within minutes, her waist-length hair is lying on the tiled floor in a long hall where more than two dozen people, including one-year-old babies, are receiving tonsure.

    Ms Lakshmi's hair is collected and dropped into a large silver-coloured pot, in one of the three halls of Kalyana Katta, the main place for tonsuring in Tirumala. There are nine other smaller halls in the town.

    This is the second time she is receiving tonsure at the Lord Venkateswara Temple, where an offering of hair is supposed to cleanse sins or bring good fortune, and is a sign of how a person is willing to surrender his or her ego to god.

    "I am doing it as prayers to the Lord for prosperity for my family," said the mother of two.

    What Ms Lakshmi, who is from the state of Tamil Nadu, perhaps does not know is that hair adds up to one of the biggest revenue earners for the temple.

    In 2013-2014, it reaped 2.4 billion rupees (S$51.4 million) from selling hair - the biggest earner behind donations and investments.

    Last Sunday, around 15,000 pilgrims offered their hair, which is sorted according to length and auctioned off to eventually be turned into high-priced wigs, often sold in the United States and Europe.

    It's a round-the-clock operation, with 1,350 barbers at the temple working in two shifts.

    Most Hindus shave their hair during tonsure at least once in a lifetime. Many are tonsured when they are babies, in a ceremony symbolising a new future.

    Travelling from the northern state of Chhattisgarh, Mr Lekh Ram Sahu, who works for an agro firm, stood in line with five of his colleagues to receive tonsure.

    "It is well known that this temple is the place to get a mundan (tonsuring). It is a tradition and we wanted to be part of it."

"Gold can become an economic strength. Gold can become the country's economic property and every Indian should contribute to this... You must support me," said Mr Modi in his monthly radio programme on Oct 25.

But temples have yet to jump at the opportunity. Some rich temples in Kerala have rejected the idea, while others are waiting and watching.

At the Lord Venkateswara temple in the hill town of Tirumala, an investment committee of retired bank chiefs and former Reserve Bank of India officials will decide whether to invest in the new plan or stay with a gold deposit scheme which earns 1 to 1.5 per cent interest in the form of gold on its 6,000kg .

"We will compare (the schemes); whichever is beneficial and wherever we get better returns, we will invest," said Dr D. Sambasiva Rao, executive officer of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, which runs the temple.

"We are not selling our gold. We deposit with SBI (State Bank of India). We are depositing and getting some return. If that helps incidentally, that's okay."

Gold is an enduring theme in the temple. Some parts are gold-plated, including the "bangaru vakili", which in Telugu means the golden doorway, leading to the sanctum sanctorum, or where the temple deity resides. The gold for the doorway was donated by Indian businessman Vijay Mallya.

The temple authorities are careful about how they use gold donated by devotees from among the country's Hindu majority.

In 2012, after much deliberation, the temple gold-plated the deity's chariot with 78kg, only "after receiving God's permission", officials said.

Most pilgrims, rich and poor, do not worry about how the temple manages its wealth or whether its gold makes its way back into the economy again.

But some do not like the idea of the temple gold being turned into jewellery and sold in the market. "The gold is someone's offering, his hard-earned money; it should be respected," says 23-year-old Shravan Kumar, a visiting priest.

Every day, between 60,000 and 100,000 pilgrims visit the temple, the numbers spiking during certain Hindu festival days, with waiting times to get a glimpse of the deity and offer prayers taking up to 16 hours. Pilgrims also drop coins of all denominations into the hundi and the temple has 40 tonnes of coins, mainly American and Malaysian currency, in storage. 

The temple may not yet be jumping into the gold monetisation scheme, but this year, it has tapped into the Indian economy in other ways. In August, it opened a dematerialised, or demat, account, which allows investors to hold stocks and securities electronically in the Indian market.

"We will not be investing our money but if someone wants to donate in stocks, we will take it and afterwards, we may sell it within one year," said Mr Rao. "We have to keep up with the changing times."

This has meant computerisation and use of biometric data for booking of rooms, to the sale of the famous ladoos (ball-shaped Indian sweets), given to devotees as prasad or religious offerings after prayers.

Next on the plan is amping up security with face-recognition software in the 630 CCTVs to stamp out petty crimes in Tirumala that include a thriving black market in ladoos. Last month alone, 52 people were caught selling the ladoos at up to 100 per cent mark-up.

Also in the plan is a possible visit to Singapore by its security team to look at scanners for the entrance to Tirumala.

In the meantime, all eyes will be on the temple to see if it takes the lead in ploughing gold back into the economy.

Ms Bhagyalakshmi Janardhan, 26, who was visiting the temple with her family, is not worried if it does. "I gave a gold pendant given to me during my marriage for the well-being of my three-year-old son. What happens to the gold is not my business anymore," she said. "It is God's will."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Will temples say yes to Modi's gold buy-back plan?'. Print Edition | Subscribe