Gold-rich temples refuse to unlock idle assets

Ravi Palwankar

KOLKATA/KOCHI: Some of India’s richest temples such as Tirumala Tirupati, Sree Padmanabhaswamy, Shree Krishna temple of Guruvayur, Shree Siddhivinayak and Vaishnodevi are in no mood to part with their treasure to ease the supply crunch and control the outflow of dollars.
The gold trade is keen to get a slice of a possible 20,000 ton of gold stashed away in peoples’ homes and temples, which at the current gold price it worth around $980 -$1000 billion.

Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) receives 80-100 kg of gold and 100-120 kg of silver as offerings every month. “Tirupati has a treasure trove of Rs 70,000 crore in the form of gold bars, coins and jewellery,” said Swamy Kamalananda Bharati, head of Hindu Devalaya Parirakshana Samity. It deposits the gold in banks to earn interest. It submitted 493.702 kg of ornaments to the Indian Overseas Bank BSE 6.40 % (IOB) for purpose of conversion into gold bars last December , which is equivalent to 338 kgs of pure gold after melting and purification at the government mint at Mumbai.

The bank would keep it in the form of bars. Besides bearing the entire cost of transportation, melting and minting into gold bars, the IOB will also pay an interest of 1.61% on the total gold value which in aggregate form at the end of five years will be worth 27.5 kg of gold.

The TTD has so far deposited 1353 kg of gold with the IOB It has also deposited nearly 2,275 kg of gold with State Bank of India BSE 9.74 % and earning revenues from it. But there are no plans to offload gold in the market. “We have no plans to do so. We are depositing the gold in banks and earning interest. That’s it,” the spokesman said.

Recently a treasure trove of gold, precious stones, rare coins, idols etc was discovered in underground vaults of Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, believed to be one of 108 shrines dedicated to Lord Vishnu in India. The Supreme Court appointed panel is conducting the inventory assessment of the six vaults, of which one has never been opened. Though there is no official confirmation, the treasures are widely believed to be worth over Rs 1 lakh crore rupees, which will make the temple the richest in India.

The treasure is most likely to remain in the temple as it has been accumulated over centuries by kings of Travancore (present Thiruvananthapuram and neighboring regions in south Kerala ) through tax, gifts, conquered wealth and offerings. “The last date for completing the inventory assessment has been extended to December 31 after which reports will be sent to various authorities. The decision on the treasures will be taken by the authorities as per the wishes of devotees,” said Bhuvanendran Nair, executive officer of Sree Padmanabhaswami Temple Trust.

Unlike Padmanabhaswamy temple , the Sree Krishna temple in Guruvayur in Kerala has an annual income of about Rs 50 crore, part of which comes in the form of gold. In addition, the temple has over 600 kg of gold, of which more than 500 kg are deposited as bars in SBIBSE 9.74 % Mumbai. The rest is kept inside the temple for daily rituals.

“Any decision to sell the temple gold can be controversial and the temple will not do it. Recently there was a call from RBI Mumbai asking about procurement of gold with the temple. But we have never thought about it,” said Guruvayoor Devaswom (temple affairs) administrator K Muralidharan.

The temple deposits the gold in the bank once it reaches a certain level. The gold given by the devotees will be in the ornaments, lamps, idols etc which may have to be converted to gold bars to be deposited in the banks.

In terms of offerings from devotees, Ayyappa (believed to be son of Shiva and Vishnu) temple in Sabarimala , may come first. Apart from two months stretching from mid November to mid January, the temple opens only for a few days from the first of every Malayalam month. It gets devotees from all over South India. The gold given as the offering is kept inside the strong room in the temple premises.

“The average annual income is around. 105 crore and about 15 kg of gold,” said P Venugopal , Devaswom Commissioner of Sabarimala temple. The temple comes under Travancore Devaswom , which manages hundreds of temples in south Kerala. In Mumbai, the Shree Siddhi Vinayak Ganpati Trust has no plans to sell off gold in the market.