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India's Gold Temples

Using gold for religious gifts, charity, adornment and investment in India...

to India would be complete without visiting one of its famous and venerable temples, writes David Lew for Commodity Online in Mumbai.

Millions of devotees every year travel to and worship in dozens of sprawling Hindu temples that dot the Indian landscape, from south to north, east to west. We make donations to these holy places of worship to help maintain them, and also to help the religious organizations that manage these places run orphanages, schools, educational institutions and hospitals.

Thanks to these donations, and India's live of gold, temples in India own more gold than the country's central bank – the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) – even after it recently bought 200 tonnes of gold from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to boost its foreign exchange reserves.

No, there is no firm estimate of how much gold that Indian temples possess. But RBI officials say it is much, much more gold than the central bank gold holdings of nearly 557 tonnes.

For example, Sajjan Jindal, vice-chairman and managing director of JSW Steel, a billionaire Indian industrialist and steel magnate, recently travelled to the Hindu Guruvayur Temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala and offered the temple authorities a new entrance door to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, entirely made of gold. And it is not just Jindal, a rich industrialist, who is offering gold to the deities at Indian temples. From rich to the poor, people donate Gold Coins, bars, jewelry and ornaments.

The largest quantity of religious gold in the world is believed to belong to the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), which maintains twelve temples and shrines in the southern India state of Andhra Pradesh. The temples at Tirupati receive several hundred kilograms of gold as donations from devotees every month.

The Tirupati temple has a separate department to handle Gold Coins and articles received as donations. The department's employees check if all that glitters is indeed gold. Coins are separated from currencies, gold from all else, before being deposited in banks. The assortment of golden items that the temple receives as donations include: Gold Coins, silver coins, gold ornaments, silver ornaments, golden handcuffs. Recently the temple even received a gold Leica camera, which is today being used by the official photographer of the temple.

Two years ago, a devotee of Hindu Lord Venkateswara – for whom the Tirupati temple is dedicated – donated gold items worth more than $200,000 as part of a puja (Hindu offering of gratitude). Balbir Singh Uppal, an industrialist, donated over seven pieces of puja items made of gold to the temple. The donation was believed to be made in fulfillment of a vow made earlier.

The Tirupati temple is also giving gold to poor families in order to stop them converting to other religions. It gives out one gram of gold to each family which lives more than 100,000 Rupees ($2000) below the poverty line. The Siddhivinayak Temple in the western Indian state of Maharashtra temple plans to sell gold ornaments donated by devotees at auction in order to pay for a medical centre. The proceeds of the auction by will be spent on a diagnostic centre, after plans for the project were approved by the state government.

Last year, the Tirupati temple management announced work to cover the sanctum sanctorum of Sri Venkateswara temple with gold. The temple administration has already received 60 kg of gold for this task from devotees, taken up under the Ananda Nilayam Anantha Swarnamayam scheme. In the first phase, some 200 kg of gold and 600 kg of copper will be used to cover the sanctum sanctorum.

One of the biggest Hindu shrines in southern India, the Sri Puram Golden Temple, was built by a spiritual organization in Tamil Nadu at an approximate cost of $160 million two years ago. Covering 55,000 sq ft, the temple has intricate carvings and sculptures in gold. The entire structure has been covered with gold and copper, and it took some 400 goldsmiths and coppersmiths six years to complete this architectural marvel. More than one and one-half tonnes of pure gold glitter and gleam at the site.

Further north in Amritsar, of course, up in northern India's Punjab state, is the holiest shrine in Sikhism. Known as the famous Golden Temple, the Harmandir Sahib (or Hari Mandir) is a major pilgrimage destination for Sikhs from all over the world, as well as an increasingly popular tourist attraction. When the temple was re-built in the early 19th century, 100 kilograms of gold were applied to the inverted lotus-shaped dome. Hence the name.

India's temples don't only receive or use gold for donations and adornment, however. They also put it to work. Several commercial banks in India are wooing temples to handle their gold assets, and the State Bank of India (SBI) has launched a special gold investment scheme targeted only to those affluent and high net worth investors, temples and trusts for whom gold is an asset class within their larger portfolios.

The scheme has already garnered 400 kg of gold alone from Guruvayur temple alone in the state of Kerala.

Gods are, indeed, in love with gold in India, the largest marketplace for gold along with China. As Gold Prices continue to soar to record highs, India's temples are becoming richer. Gods from above must be watching their rich, golden abodes!

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