By D. Jose
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India, Sept 30 (Reuters) - India's Hindutemples are resisting divulging their gold holdings - perhapsnearly half the amount held in Fort Knox - amid mistrust of themotives of authorities who are trying to cut a hefty import billthat is hurting the economy.
The central bank, which has already taken steps that haveslowed to a trickle the incoming supplies that have exacerbatedIndia's current account deficit, has sent letters to some of thecountry's richest temples asking for details of their gold.
It says the inquiries are simply data collection, but Hindugroups are up in arms.
"The gold stored in temples was contributed by devotees overthousands of years and we will not allow anyone to usurp it,"said V Mohanan, secretary of the Hindu nationalist Vishwa HinduParishad organisation in Kerala state, in a statement.
Indians buy as much as 2.3 tonnes of gold, on average, everyday - the weight of a small elephant - and what they don't giveto the gods is mostly hoarded. Jewellery is handed down asheirlooms and stored away with bars and coins as a hedge againstinflation or a source of quick funds in an emergency.
That is costing the economy dear. Gold imports totalled $54billion in the year ending March 31, 2013, the biggestnon-essential item shipped in from overseas and a major factorin swelling the current account deficit to a record in 2012/13.
Guruvayur temple, in Kerala, one of the most sacred in Indiaand boasting a 33.5-metre (110-ft) gold-plated flagstaff, hasalready told the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) it won't divulgeany details.
"The gold we have is mostly offered by the devotees. Theywould not like the details to be shared with anybody," said V MGopala Menon, commissioner of the temple's administrative board.
The World Gold Council estimates there are about 2,000tonnes of gold locked away in temples - worth about $84 billionat current prices - which Indian devotees have offered in theform of jewellery, bars, coins and even replicas of body parts,in the hope of winning favours from the gods or in thanks forblessings received and health restored.
Curbing gold imports and getting the gold squirreled awayback into circulation has become a priority for the governmentand RBI this year. Import duty is at a record 10 percent and thelatest new rule - that 20 percent of all imports must leave thecountry as jewellery exports - caused confusion that dried upbuying for two months.
The head of the Hindu nationalist main opposition BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) in Kerala state, V Muralidharan, said the RBIwanted to "take possession" of the gold and maybe sell it fordollars.
The central bank said there was "no proposal under itsconsideration to convert idle gold into bullion at thisjuncture".
But its letters, sent to leading temple trusts in Kerala,were prompted by a report looking at "issues related to goldimports" and loans outside the banking system in February, whichzeroed in on temples and domestic hoards for fresh supplies.
Under the heading "supply-related measures", the reportlooks at recycling domestic gold and notes: "Temples in Indiahold large quantities of gold jewellery offered by devotees tothe deities."
Subha Unnikrishnan, a clothes shop owner worshipping at oneof the temples in Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram, saidwhatever had been given to the temple should stay there.
"We have given it to the god with a purpose," he said."Nobody can take them away."
Of the three major temple boards in Kerala, which administermore than 2,800 temples, Cochin board has also decided againstproviding details of its gold, while another has yet to decideand a third says it has not yet received a letter from the RBI.
Some of them cite security reasons for their reticence - andthe wealthiest temples do have tight controls and metaldetectors at gates to keep their assets safe.
There has been no inquiry from the RBI yet at thecenturies-old Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, where two years agotreasure then estimated to be worth over $20 billion - more thanIndia's education budget - was discovered in secret subterraneanvaults. But its hoard is already being checked by the SupremeCourt to make sure it is adequately protected.
There are some, for sure, who feel the temples shoulddivulge their centuries of gold offerings.
"Everything the temple gets should be known to thedevotees," said Shankaram Kutty, head of an advertising firmbased in Cochin, who goes at least once a year to Guruvayur withan offering. "I feel every temple should declare their assets."
Mumbai's Shree Siddhivinayak Ganpati temple, often visitedby Bollywood celebrities, had already put 10 kg (22 lbs) of itsgold into a bank deposit scheme. It still has 140 kg in itsvault.
"The gold we have is the nation's property, we will be proudif the nation can benefit from it," said Subhash VitthalMayekar, chairman of the temple's administrative trust. He hasnot yet received an inquiry from the RBI.
It is not alone. The Tirupati temple in the southern stateof Andhra Pradesh, considered one of India's richest, has lodged2,250 kg of gold with the State Bank of India, which pays itinterest.
As the central bank ponders its options, it could take heartthat the temples themselves are already doing their bit tocirculate the gold.
"We use some of it for making gold lockets that we sell inour temple counter. For making the lockets, we send some gold tothe Mumbai mint through the State Bank of India, which is one ofour bankers," said a source at the Guruvayur temple'sadministration.