Let’s admit it. Malayalis have not been trail blazers on the fashion circuit. Talking about fashion trends in Kerala has always had a mildly apologetic undertone. Most of the time, we follow trends set elsewhere, rather meekly, many months and sometimes years after they’ve ebbed out of the fashion hotspots in the country. And then we hang on to them with a tenacity that would put a hermit crab to shame. So when the occasion came up to write about the gold trend in Kerala, I rose without much ado. All tones of apology are thrown out of the window. We are talking about an arena where we have beaten the shape out of all our competitors, not just in India, but from across the world. As if that wasn’t grand enough, we have been record-breakers (a word we love to use) here for centuries. Now, that’s a remarkably consistent performance for you from the unassuming malayali.
The myth goes that the warrior sage, Parashurama minted gold coins called Rasis and sowed them in Kerala. The same angry man who created the state amid much drama, decided to bestow it with gold. What he had in mind while doing so may be uncertain, but whether you believe in myths or not, one thing is certain. Our connection with the yellow metal begins here. In the beginning of the Kerala chapter.
Moving over to more recoverable sources of history, we trace our love affair with gold to the global spice trade during the years of the Roman empire. Throughout history, gold has moved towards Asia. Within Asia, it moved towards India and within India, towards Kerala. Kerala was the epicentre of the world economy during this period. Not just Romans came here, but Greeks, Jews and Arabs. And they didn’t stand around looking at the scenery. They were enamoured with our spices and they quickly parted with increasing amounts of gold in exchange for them. Gold in the pockets of a Keralite meant he had dealings with foreigners and consequently higher status amongst his peers. Therein began the indelible association of gold with status and prestige in the psyche of the Keralite. Status and prestige remained the driving force behind gold consumption in the ensuing centuries.
One more word has to be added here. Trust. And isn’t that everything for us? The promoters of a reputed jewellery brand in Kerala will smile at this loose translation of their tagline. But I borrow it unhesitant, because as they nailed it brilliantly, trust has indeed been the cornerstone of our relationship with this metal. Centuries of trust. Millions of Keralites have capitalized their farms and small businesses by pledging their gold jewellery. In the absence of a social security net, a Keralite’s best bet was to fall back on his household gold. The majority of rural Kerala bypassed the banking sector completely. They held their savings in gold because they understood its dynamics. When they needed money, they simply pledged it with the local pawnbroker. Testimony to the volume of business done by the village pawnbroker is the fact that the national gold loan market is dominated today by players from Kerala who began business in their villages.
The women in Kerala have always had a say in financial matters and thankfully so. A mother gave her daughter gold because the wealth could be stored on her body. Gold has traditionally been considered the wealth of the womenfolk and is extremely important to them. It is preserved by them with an emotional zeal, to be used only in times of crisis. Rarely would you find a woman selling gold because it fetches a high price. She would use it as collateral for a surgery or any such emergency. She would sell it only for something very important, like a child’s education or the construction of a house when she felt the trade-off was worth it. Even today, gold remains a trusted asset for the malayali woman. Her reasons to buy gold may have changed slightly. As she becomes more calorie conscious, she may seek light weight designs in gold to highlight her newfound collarbones, but deep within she remains true to the collective malayali psyche and is emotionally attached to the gold she possesses.
All this talk of emotion may make it seem like our gold-related decisions are essentially matters of the heart. For a long while it seemed to be so, especially to the Americans who have always retained a nose-in -the- air attitude about gold as an investment. Gold was not an investment option for the thinking man. The legendary investor Warren Buffett famously said, “Gold gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or someplace. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.” That seems to have been directed at the Malayali. Lying on his armchair, sipping his tea and flipping through the local newspaper for the nth time, the man seems strangely unperturbed by the investment mumbo jumbo that’s driving the world into a tizzy. Agreed, that other commodities do more. Steel builds skyscrapers, copper wires cities, rice feeds masses and coffee keeps you awake. What does gold do except look shiny and sit pretty? The lungi-clad guy will look up from his newspaper to tell you, that’s enough. The one trillion worth treasure from the secret chambers of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple has been doing just that, sitting pretty.
With the world economy quivering on its knees and the dollar dropping like it is going out of fashion, Buffet might want to take another look at this pretty coin and the humble, simple malayali wisdom behind it.
This article was written for the Times of India as part of the ‘Embracing Kerala’ series which was brought out for their launch in the state. It was published in the inaugural issue on Feb 3, 2012.