India’s Golden Traditions

(Sydney goes for gold. Top row L to R: Akshita Mohan, Shalini Parthiban with mum Aruna and grandma Lalitha, Aruna Parthiban; Middle Row: Akshita and soni Mohan, Tanisha and Uma Sharma, Tanisha Sharma; Last row: Shalini Parthiban. Pictures: Neelesh Kale. Make-Up: Kusum Singh of Kusum’s Beauty Services)

By Savitha Narayan

Gold has always been an important part of the Indian culture and psyche – marriages negotiated on the amount of gold to be given as dowry, the social status determined by the weight of gold around the necks and the family heirlooms being handed down from the mother to the daughter to her children as per the tradition.

Perhaps some of that mentality has changed, but gold is still an important part of our lives. These days there is a more flexible use for gold as being handy in times of need, if one needs to sell it to obtain cash.   Whatever the use, the word ”˜gold’ always conjures up a desire to own it.

Gold has even permeated down to expressions we use whilst speaking, representing positive symbolic meanings to valued aspects of our society and life in general: we have gold medals at sporting competitions, golden wedding anniversaries, golden rules ”“ kind, good natured people are often described as having “hearts of gold”!

So what is it about gold that makes us so fascinated by it? The October 2007 issue of the magazine Envy describes the love for and importance placed on gold through generations ”“ it says “gold has symbolised wealth, supremacy and guaranteed power”¦it has caused obsession in men, destroyed some cultures and gave power to others”.

According to statistics, India is currently the world’s largest consumer of gold with Indian consumers buying approximately 25 per cent of the world’s gold which is a whopping 800 tonnes of gold a year.   And not only do Indians buy gold at amazing amounts, India also is the largest importer of the yellow metal: in 2008 India imported about 400 tonnes of gold.   The facts scream out: Indians love gold.

Most middle-class Indian families own gold jewellery and are reluctant to part with it even for investment.   However with the price of gold going up, banks are encouraging people to take gold loans.   It seems like a solid form of investment, but surprisingly only 10 per cent of gold in India is in banks according to HDFC bank, which has the majority share of gold loans in Indian banks.

There is a stigma associated with the sale and investment of gold, Bollywood movies contributing to this, portraying the sale of gold as an inability to earn a living.   Over the years, however, banks and finance companies have attempted to reduce this prejudice and it seems to have worked, especially during the global economic crisis when gold prices rose. Gold became the popular form of investment, rather than stock markets and mutual funds.   The advantage with using gold for this purpose is that there’s often a lower default rate, because Indians do not want to risk losing the family jewellery ”“ I guess our possessiveness of gold and gold jewellery can come in handy then!

So what is the common perception of gold today? We talked to two Indian families here in Sydney about what they think.

For seventeen year old Shalini Parthiban gold has been an integral part of her family for generations, a part of growing up for her watching other female members in her family getting ready to go to social functions wearing gold jewellery.
“It has a very classic beauty,” she explains.   “Being a dancer also means that I have to wear a lot of gold during performances, so I have a lot of exposure to it.”

Shalini has many family heirlooms passed down through the generations and says everyone appreciates the history that comes with them.   When asked about investment and security by putting gold in the bank and using it as an asset, she says, “it’s definitely important, but there are so many memories associated with gold because of the special occasions in which we wear gold jewellery and are given gold jewellery that it’s always nice to have some with you”.

Her grandmother, Lalitha, who has come from Chennai, has a similar view.   Coming from India, she says, there has always been a huge emphasis on wearing gold jewellery as being part of tradition, and, like Shalini, recognises the traditional practice of keeping family heirlooms to pass down generations.   “We keep some in coin form in the bank,” she says, “but I have daughters and granddaughters and would like to pass the gold jewellery on to them”.

Nineteen year old Tanisha Sharma takes a different view on it however.   “Personally, I don’t really like gold too much, I like precious stones more,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean that gold is unimportant. It’s more for aesthetics, and keeping gold jewellery is a tradition that’s been passed down through generations.”   Her mother Uma, she explains, naturally owns gold jewellery but has also never worn much gold, although she does like it.   For her family, gold is held more as security ”“ Tanisha believes it is more useful as bank assets than as traditional jewellery.

What about the recent string of robberies, where thieves purposely targeted Indian houses because of the importance that Indians place on keeping gold? “It’s scary that people could be aware of that culture and break in because of it,” Tanisha says, adding that the recent robberies has meant that it would make families owning a considerable amount of gold more wary and more reluctant to keep it with them at home.

Akshita Mohan and her mother Soni also love gold.   Akshita, eighteen, says that while fancy jewellery is definitely common these days, it “doesn’t have the same look that gold achieves”. “Gold is softer, more elegant,” she says, “despite the fake jewellery that people own these days, it can’t compare to the real thing.”

She says that gold is convenient too, especially for people with sensitive skin: gold doesn’t react easily or cause the infections and rashes that fake ornaments often can.   The value of gold too, can never decline, according to Akshita; the rate is at an all time high at the moment, “so you should invest!” she laughs.

Due to the robberies though, Akshita agrees that it’s better to keep gold locked away, especially as in Australia, it would look conspicuous to wear bright gold jewellery in public and is used mainly for special occasions like weddings or festivals.   Like Shalini, she emphasises the sentimental value of gold.   “It’s a very Indian thing,” she says, “and it’s nice and traditional, and has a very homely feel to it.”

Her mother concurs.   “Gold is very important in the Indian culture,” she says, “and is an essential part of women especially as it forms their identity, we are not complete without it”. She says that in olden times, gold was often used as security as many women were uneducated, and was therefore a means of being able to obtain money if needed.   Now, however, it is more a sign of prosperity.

Gold is not a part of the Australian culture; it is a novelty to see 22-carat necklaces lying at home and is undoubtedly a target for potential burglars.   “Wearing gold is for when we want to remember our Indian culture, being so far away from home, and look traditional,” she says.

It’s often said that diamonds are a girl’s best friend.   Well for Indians, it looks like that statement doesn’t particularly ring true.   It’d be a safer bet to replace ”˜diamonds’ with ”˜gold’!

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