May 17, 2010

Gold and Marriage on Akshaya Tritiya

Watching an afternoon news bulletin on television yesterday I paused to read a crawly rolling off the bottom of the screen noting that Gold prices had breached a new high, 10 gms. topping Rs. 18,000 by several hundred rupees. I assumed the price listed was for 24-carat gold.

Today a newspaper website announced that yesterday over 60,000 couples tied the knot in a single day in Bombay alone. I wouldn’t dare imagine the number across the country. Neither of the two news items was a complete surprise. And like with much of life in India the joy of living and surviving India lies as much in letting the expected surprise you as the unexpected.

Yesterday was Akshaya Tritiya, an auspicious day for Indians seeking to start their innings at the matrimonial altar on a strong footing. It is also an auspicious day for buying gold. This year the day fell on May 16. The year before, Akshaya Tritiya fell on April 27.

In the week leading up to Akshaya Tritiya, newspapers run full page advertisements enticing potential customers into visiting Jewellry showrooms to buy gold.

Akshaya is Sanskrit for ‘never diminishing’ or ‘never ceasing’. And it holds that any venture started on Akshaya Tritiya day is blessed with success and continuity. And it holds that purchases of gold will continue (never diminish) to bring prosperity and good luck when purchased on Akshaya Tritiya. Similarly a marriage conducted on the day will continue to bring good luck to the couple.

It is also a day when marketing teams of newspapers hope to cash in on advertisements from advertisers seeking to reach newly wed couples setting up home after marrying on Akshaya Tritiya day.

While one would expect Jewellry showrooms to lead the way in advertising it is actually no surprise that they have ceded ground to consumer electronics.

And since gold has come to be synonymous with Akshaya Tritiya day, dealers vie with one another with offers of gold on purchases of consumer electronics goods. Here Big Bazaar, a large departmental store chain, promised buyers of furniture worth Rs. 7,500 free gold upto 3 gms. Buyers of electronics worth Rs. 15,000 were promised upto 4 gms. gold free while buyers of BlackBerry ‘Smartphone’ could return home richer by a 1 gm. gold coin offered free with the purchase. The offers were valid for Akshaya Tritiya day only. The copy Aaj Hai Kuchh Naya Ghar Lane Ka Din left little to chance - Today is the day to bring something new home.

Other offers were discounted prices on purchase. Newly weds on the auspicious day are expected to take up on the offers. Many do.

Hindu marriages, particularly among Brahmins, continue until the beginning of Chatur Masa that usually coincides with the beginning of the monsoons in June-July. Advertisers have a little over a month in which to maximize their reach before the start of Chatur Masa. Purchase of gold in India largely revolves around marriage.

Masa is Sanskrit for month while Chaturthi is Sanskrit for four. Chatur is derived from Chaturthi. Chatur Masa extends for four months and is considered inauspicious for marriage. It is only a fortnight after Diwali, usually coinciding with October-November, when Chatur Masa comes to an end is it considered auspicious to schedule marriages again.

Across the whole of India, with the possible exception of regions that are not Hindu majority, gold is lapped up by buyers seeking to invest in it or taking delivery of jewellery custom-made for use in marriages of their children either scheduled on Akshaya Tritiya day or for at a later date.

Jewellery showrooms vie with each other via advertisements offering ‘exciting’ bargains on gold or simply advertise their designs.

Diamond Jewellery advertising in the Hindustan Times’ HT CafĂ©, called upon readers to “bring home divine luck this Akshaya Tritiya”, claiming their jewellery design to be based on “sacred geometry of the great constellation called the Saptarishi Mandalam”, before elaborating that the “auspicious seven stone diamond design evokes blessings of divine luck upon the wearer.”

Some jewellery showrooms will deck the outside of their shops with flowers to create a festive atmosphere.

Inside there will be little or no place to move around. Staff at Jewellry showrooms cannot expect to get a day off on Akshaya Tritiya.

I am inclined to believe that the retail trade in Gold on Akshaya Tritiya day will likely surpass the retail trade in Gold on any single day among the rest of the countries put together. I do not have figures to back my assertion up, merely sentiment.

It has to be seen to be believed. It is only natural for gold prices to nudge upward on Akshaya Tritiya. With the advent of summer, prospective buyers turn to the Panchanga to find out when is Akshaya Tritiya even as they save up to buy gold on the auspicious day.

Not everyone is enthused with the rise in gold prices that day. The Hindustan Times reported today on unhappy customers having to scale down their gold purchases yesterday to fit shrinking budgets resulting from rising gold prices on the auspicious day. The paper quoted an industry source saying the total sale of gold on the day was 25 tonnes (~ 25,000 kilograms). If the prices had held steady it would have been much higher.

The messaging is not restricted to newspaper advertisements. Banks use their ATM outlets to inform customers of the gold they can purchase from them.

Here ICICI bank is enticing customers using their ATM with “This Akshaya Tritiya, prosper with purity,” before promising them 24-carat that is “99.99% pure”. Banks retain the advertisement for several days after Akshaya Tritiya.

With the increase in gold prices, middle-class homes will quickly revaluate the worth of their gold jewelry in light of the prices breaching record levels and soon conversation in the drawing room will revolve around the lady of the house recounting of how the gold she was gifted at her marriage as Streedhan had cost her father only Rs. 250 a tola (12 gms.) forty years ago. “Since then it has doubled close to 75 times over.”

Soon more stories emerge as the family gathering turns nostalgic.

No home is immune to these comparisons. If weather is known to be a conversation starter with the British, gold prices achieves the same with Indians.

On my visit to Goa last October I noticed passersby pausing by a white board placed on the landing outside the Bank of India branch in Campal, opposite river Mandovi in Panjim, Goa. Curious I stepped up to the white board only to see a listing of gold prices for gold coins on sale at the bank. In the six months since then gold prices have appreciated by close to Rs. 1000 / 10 gms.

Akshaya Tritiya is also a busy day for Brass Bands in their shiny clothes and even shinier instruments as they lead the marriage procession to the tune of Bollywood songs. Marriage halls are booked months in advance while open spaces let out for marriage receptions are tidied up the day before.

On my way back home the previous day I passed glittering pandals being readied for marriage receptions.

But the pulse of the auspicious day is to be found at major Jewellry showrooms. I remember it from our tiptoe to a branch of Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri (TBZ) on Akshaya Tritiya last year for a lookaround. The place was buzzing and I whiled away my time between looking at designs and observing customers making decisions, agonizing over exquisite designs arrayed in glass cases many of which were specifically launched on Akshaya Tritiya. Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri (TBZ) have been in the business since 1864, building a reputation that few can hope to match.

24-carat gold was priced around Rs. 13,300 per 10 gms. that day. While Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri were not offering any discount on gold prices, they had however announced a 50-percent discount on the jewellry making-charge, the charge originally ranging between Rs. 150-600 per gm., depending on Jewellry type and design intricacy.

Customers seeking to exchange their old jewelery for new were sent up a narrow flight of stairs where a staff member was crouched under a makeshift shelter on the terrace, blowtorch in hand. The queue stretched long with customers awaiting their turn with their old jewelry. After melting the jewelry with the blowtorch he would hand the resulting gold puddle in the shape of a coin over to the owner who then carried it back to counter where it was evaluated for purity in a machine and assigned value for the quantity at the prevailing gold price for the day before adjusting the price payable against the price of jewelry bought at the showroom. The jewelry is melted before evaluating its worth to remove impurities if any.

There were many at the store that day seeking to exchange their old gold jewelry for new designs. Women outnumbered men.

Sales girls in matching sari and blouse patiently helped customers with their selections, answering queries while encouraging purchases. The variety on display was bewildering.

While I waited at the counter, a middle-aged couple had borne their old jewelry to the store, eventually evaluated at Rs. 100,000+ after melting it upstairs. They were purchasing pre-ordered gold idols of Lord Shiva and his family comprising of Nandi the bull, Shiva's wife Parvati, and their son Lord Ganapati, totaling Rs. 2,50,000+. After adjusting the amount payable against their old jewelry they bore their purchase home.

The staff at the payment counter was kept busy with customers waiting to make their payments, counting and recounting currency notes, occasionally holding notes up against the light to check their veracity. Pakistan has been in the spotlight over the years for pushing fake currency into India to undermine its economy.

Excited chatter filled up the large viewing hall on the ground floor. A separate section catered to diamonds.

Not all faces were ebullient or excited at making a purchase, some were weighed down. Others were expressionless.

Standing there, in their midst, I had no way of knowing every story. However I was certain of one thing. Not every story had willed its protagonist willingly to the showroom.


Nisha said...

Sometimes I wonder why some dates or occasions are so very important in our lives that everything revolves around it. :-)

bobbie said...

Isn't it amazing that the people of a whole nation can be persuaded to gear such personal decisions as when to marry on a certain day. This is quite interesting. I guess we can find similar things in every culture.

TALON said...

Thank you, Anil. I never knew that about the gold in India and one date having such a resounding influence. Amazing! Advertisers sure spew it out and the consumers gobble it up - much like in North America with the holiday season. Then it's about every single thing that you can advertise about - lol!

Anil P said...

Nisha: I'm glad that is so :-) It helps focus energies and anticipation.

Bobbie: Marriages in India take place around much of the year with the exception of the four months of Chatur Masa, whose start coincides with the coming of the monsoons in June-July. Some will marry even during the Chatur Masa, however most will not.

Among the remaining 8 months certain days are considered to be more auspicious than the others. And among those auspicious days Akshaya Tritiya is considered to be more auspicious than most, so more marriages occur on the day.

Talon: Thank you. The significance of Akshaya Tritiya has been around for time immemorial, and has been considered among the most auspicious days for starting new things, starting anew, buying new and the like. People have always gone out on Akshaya Tritiya and bought gold.

But it is only now, maybe in the last one decade that advertisers have latched onto it, and they've latched big, advertising just about everything while nudging, pushing and even downright 'coercing' with their copy.

karen said...

This is so interesting! Enjoying your blog as always... including the last post, too.

Lynn said...

People in the US have been selling their gold like mad. There are even parties that cater to that. How interesting that it culminated to that one day over there.

Anjuli said...

What an informative post! It is so very interesting to see how occasions in life can hinge on something like Gold. (or vice versa)

In Singapore, Gold is also very sought after- both in the Indian marriages and the Chinese marriages. When I married and did the 'tea ceremony'- as I offered tea to each member of the family and was introduced to them - they would, in turn, leave a 'red packet' which invariably had some Gold necklace- or Gold earrings or something along those lines.

Ah- I feel a post coming on :) Thanks!! ha ha!

Anu said...

what a wonderful compilation, Anil! loved every bit of it.... incidentally, i was married on Akshaya Tritiya too, eight years back, though we did not actually plan it that way..... and i have also haunted those jewelry shops, jostling with the crowds, though i dont do that any more..... since the crowds are just too much since this rampant advertising started...

but there is just one thing u have missed - gold ETFs.. thats what i am doing these days to replace the actual gold,since i cant wear the real thing any more for all the danger that lurks around!!!

Alexis said...

Awesome post. When I had finished reading, I wished there was more! As always, I loved the pictures too.

grannymar said...

Such detail, it makes wonderful reading. As a Westerner I am fascinated. Thank you Anil.

pink dogwood said...

Wow -never heard of this. I guess the day is most auspicious for jewellery shops :)

Riot Kitty said...

Not every story had willed its protagonist willingly to the showroom.

*You are so right!* Interesting post. You do your homework, as we say in the states.

Anonymous said...

This post fascinated me...very interesting. I once worked with a girl who was raised here in the states but her family was from Pakistan and they went there for her wedding month. I believe the wedding was like a three day festival. The pictures were incredible with all of the lovely colorful dresses and jewelry, and the elaborate henna tattoos on her hands. I was so happy she shared those photographs and explained her culture to me. It was a rare and beautiful glimpse into her life.

Anil P said...

Karen: Thank you. It's always a pleasure to be told that :-)

Anjuli: Thank you. Gold is central to the economics of life. Possibly the one thing that can be banked upon to not lose value in a jiffy.

The practice you outlined with your experience at the 'tea ceremony' must parallel the concept of Streedhan in India where gold gifted to the bride at mrriage time from either side of the family like the mandatory Mangalsutra (usually gold), gold chains, gold bracelets, gold rings etc. function beyond being mere accessories to wear but act as a financial security for the bride.

Red is a potent colour in Hinduism as well, given that the Sindoor married women wear on their forehead or in the parting in their hair is red.

Lynn: Selling gold? Does it have to do with the recession?

Alexis: Thank you. At a later date I'm planning on turning an Indian wedding into a post. Hopefully the pictures will be more colourful.

Anu: Thank you. Wish you a belated eighth Marriage Anniversary.

A jewelry shop on Akshay Tritiya day is a place of and for many emotions, with customers agonising over designs to select. Much hard earned money is on the line. The inherent pressures at play in getting daughters married off among other things.

Gold Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) is an option as well. It is probably good for the common man investor, still the guarantor / custodian has to buy Gold equalling multiples of unit of Gold ETF the investor invets in, so the demand for gold in the market is not diluted and prices do not take a beating. Gold ETF offers a safe bet against inflation so long as gold prices do not go into a free fall at some later point.

Gold ETF is definitely a safer option to invest in gold speciallly if one is not intending to wear the jewelry and go through the hassles and insecurity of storing it in bank lockers at other times.

But still I suppose those investing in Gold ETF will retain some gold jewelry for use on community occasions.

Grannymar: Thank you. I can imagine how different this must seem to the Western eye.

Pink Dogwood: Thank you.

Riot Kitty: Thank you. My teachers from school might tell you that I was more likely to be found on the playground than doing homework :-)

Suzicate: Thank you.

Weddings in the sub-continent last several days excepting maybe the city centres where time and space is in short supply.

But in the towns and villages in the hinterland of India, weddings still stretch over several days even though the number of days will have reduced by a bit in this age and times. Families would gather at respective homes of the bride and the groom, generally helping prepare for the wedding and/or partake of the festivities.

Functions related to marriage are spread out over at least two days if not more. And yes, henna or mehendi is applied on the hands and legs, more prevalent in the North of India than the South, and likewise in Pakistan too.

Lynn said...

It is probably due to the recession, but also just to get rid of items not needed any longer.

radha said...

What prompted you to walk into the store? Willingly or unwillingly? You can refrain from answering the question.
The area where I live, have ( this was in the span on a couple of years only) atleast 10 gold stores or more. And on Akshyaya Trithiya day we are subjected to traffic jams. This year fortunately was Sunday, I have no clue what happened as I did not stir out of the house.

Window On The Prairie said...

In the 1980s here in the US, gold reached a high. Our family was having financial troubles at the time, so my father went and sold his gold wedding ring. As a kid I didn't realize what a sacrifice he had made for us.

Sara said...

This was quite interesting, Anil. I always enjoy your posts because there is so much I do not know about your country and I enjoy learning how other people live.

Thank you also for your comment..I do appreciate it.


Ms.N said...

I like the way you say " like with much of life in India, the joy of living and surviving India lies as much in letting the expected surprise you as the unexpected."

So true. u know about this day and u have seen it several times. but put a figure of 60000 weddings to it, still takes u aback.

Anil P said...

Lynn: Quite natural. In India Gold is in some ways considered to be inflation proof.

Radha: Good question :-). Put it down to curiosity :-)

I wouldn't be surprised if Bombay has the largest concentration of Gold Jewelery shops in all of India.

Window On The Prarie: It must have been a very difficult moment. The decision to put the wedding ring on the line for the family will not have easily, it is a sacrifice that moves the human spirit.

Sara: Thank you. Diversity made possible by geography is a wonderful thing.

Ms. N: Thank you. Eventually it's up to us to be alive to most moments that India throws our way. It can be a challenge at times, wonderful most other times.

Anonymous said...

u know i had never heard of this day till i moved to the south this year :) and i was soooo surprised by the mad rush it brought!

Anil P said...

Limenlemons: Lets christen it The Annual Gold Rush :-)

Sukhdeepak said...

In Chandigarh the sale of gold was Rs 30 crore on Akshaya Tritiya. This festival is not very common in north India that's why no special marriages were performed on that day.

Anil P said...

Sukhdeepak: Less of a festival, more of an auspicious day. 30 Crores is still a large amount.

$$ said...

You should have gone to the jeweleries in Kerala... u might feel that is the richest place in earth! people buy gold like they are buying carrots and potatoes!

Anaggh Desai said...

Good Post; However it's the generation which needs perception marketing. Akshaya Trithiya has been from time immemorial and people bought new things, gold et all, however it was occasion driven - a TV/Fridge once is 5-8 years or a vehicle in 15-20 years or some token gold every year saving up for the daughter.

Today a lot of it has become a commodity.

White goods have a life of 2-3 years; vehicles 3-5 Generation believes in living NOW and marketeers rush to cash in on that.

After Mothers, Fathers Day it's the turn of Indian days:)

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Anil P said...

$$: That's a story likely to be common across India :-)

Anaggh Desai: I like your use of Perception Marketing. And yes, Akshaya Trithiya has been around for time immemorial.

Where messaging seeks mass, it was inevitable that Marketers would jump in to cash in on it.

Haddock said...

Like some one said above, isn't it great that that so many people from one country decides to get married on the same day and the same time bracket, and the same goes for buying gold.

anusha said...

The old beliefs are no more to be continued as the market will make a belief into GOLD rather than gaininng any significant achievement.This awareness is to be created