MUMBAI, INDIA, April 21, 2015 (Washington Post): Workers for the centuries-old Shree Siddhivinayak Temple here spent hours unpacking gold coins, heavy wedding necklaces and lustrous pendants from a closely guarded “strong room.” By the time gold buyers began mingling with worshipers at the sweltering sanctuary on Tuesday, the jewelry auctioneers were ready. “This is not a regular gold coin that you would buy from a gold shop — it contains the Lord’s blessing,” a temple board member said, holding up a tiny coin, probably left by a devotee years ago. It eventually sold for four times its face value.
Wealthy Hindu temples such as this one are repositories for much of the $1 trillion worth of privately held gold in India — about 22,000 tons, according to an estimate from the World Gold Council. In 2011, one temple in south India was found to have more than $22 billion in gold hidden away in locked rooms rumored to be filled with snakes. Another has enough gold to rival the riches stashed at the Vatican, experts say. But little of it is contributing to the Indian economy, and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is looking to monetize India’s vast hidden wealth. In coming weeks, the government plans to begin a program that will allow temples to deposit their gold into banks to earn interest and circulate in the economy, rather than sit idle in musty vaults. The gold, officials say, would be melted down and sold to jewelers.
Many traditionalists, including the boards of many of the country’s leading temples, prefer to have their gold locked up rather than circulating in the economy. “The jewelry belongs to God. Why should the government melt it?” asked Chandan Male, 42, a businessman and devotee at the Siddhivinayak Temple. “By auctioning it, the jewelry is only circulating among the devotees.”