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Gold. It is valuable, it is beautiful, and for many in India it is semi-sacred. India is the world's second biggest consumer of gold, and in our continuing series on women and money, NPR's Julie McCarthy examines the role gold plays in the lives of Indian women, enhancing their beauty as well as their financial influence.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The late distinguish Indian economist I.G. Patel observed: In prosperity as in the hour of need, the thoughts of most Indians turn to gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: No marriage takes place without gold ornaments presented to the bride. Even the poorest Indian outfits the girl with a simple nose ring of gold. The India of old was known as the golden sparrow, so opulent were the jewels of its rulers. For Indian women who were not formally educated, gifting them gold was their social security. Today, whether Hindu, Christian, Buddhist or Muslim, bedecking the bride in gold invests her with good fortune. And, says anthropologist Nilika Mehrotra, the spirit of the venerated Hindu deity Lakshmi.

NILIKA MEHROTRA: A married woman is supposed to be an auspicious woman. She represents Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

MCCARTHY: Mehrotra notes in India today land is stolen from women. Women have been disfigured in acid attacks attempting to assert a claim to family property. But gold seems to be the one asset that everyone agrees a woman can rightfully possess.

ANSHU SRIVASTAVA: Yes, for sure. That is my property. That is my property. That is considered to be a lady's right.

MCCARTHY: Meet Anshu Srivastava, whose home is an Ali Baba-like cave, where all the decor is the color gold. Discreetly hidden beneath the Anshu's sleeve, I spy an eye-popping array of gold jewelry. Wow. Those are something. Okay. These are diamond and gold bangles for the audience, stunning bangles. Bangles are the bracelets, the simple bracelets. This one's not so simple.

SRIVASTAVA: This is diamond and this is ruby and diamond.

MCCARTHY: You have a small fortune on your wrist.

SRIVASTAVA: Yes, I have. I do have.

MCCARTHY: Do you leave the house with that stuff on?

SRIVASTAVA: Yeah, I always wear this.

MCCARTHY: And you're not worried about being robbed.

SRIVASTAVA: No. If it's my destiny, it will be with me.

MCCARTHY: Anshu has gold stashed in bank vaults for her young daughter one day. She roots through jewelry boxes filled with exquisite gold from her in-laws, her husband, and heirlooms from her mother.

SRIVASTAVA: Somehow it gives me emotional support. Someday, if I don't have money, I can use this.

MCCARTHY: Anshu's stockpile of gold earrings, rings and necklaces is lavish, but reflects the centrality of gold in an Indian woman's life. It's given for pregnancies, at births, when a baby first eats solid food. It's engrained in the cultural lexicon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MCCARTHY: My bangles sing I'm all yours, croons the temptress in this high-wattage dance number studded with India's top film stars from a 2001 blockbuster. In the old Bollywood classic "Mother India," gold preserves the family honor.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "MOTHER INDIA")

MCCARTHY: The heroine in this 1957 melodrama is reduced to pawning her gold bangles with the cunning village money lender to save the family farm. Music swelling, she slips off her jewels but never lets go her dignity. So enthralled is India with gold that Indian households control an estimated 600 to 800 billion dollars worth of it. That's four times the U.S. reserves in Fort Knox. Most of it women's jewelry.

A women's right to use her gold as she sees fit can vary in India. Anthropologist Nilika Mehrotra says women, especially some in the conservative north, require family permission to dispose of their gold.

MEHROTRA: This kind of limitation, this restriction on her right I think suits the patriarchy, so she is not totally free. Her choice is limited by the nature of the structure of which she is a part.

MCCARTHY: When Delhi-ite Pooja Sharma walked away from her marriage, her husband kept the mother lode of her gold. With the little jewelry she had left, she secured a small gold loan, her first, to pay her ailing father's medical bills. Pooja, a financial adviser accustomed to dealing with banks, agonized over pledging her jewels with the lender in exchange for cash.

POOJA SHARMA: Twice I went to them for a clarity, one branch, second branch, different branches, I went, and then I decided that, okay, I'll invest.

MCCARTHY: Thousands just like Pooja walk each day through the guarded branch doors of Muthoot Finance. Nationwide, every day, the firm transacts the equivalent of $50 million in gold loans, at 12 to 24 percent interest. In 15 minutes gold is assessed and cash dispersed, a speed no bank could match. Snigdha Paul and Sanjeev Dey have a new business thanks to their $500 loan, using her jewelry and his as collateral.

We're at the Saket market. We're in the flower boutique and the new proud owner is Sanjeev Dey. Sanjeev, this is a dream come true.

SANJEEV DEY: Yeah, definitely, we hope so.

MCCARTHY: You started it all with your own jewelry.

DEY: Yes, right. That gold has helped me. This is the example - I am also the part of this economy.

MCCARTHY: Their story is repeated throughout India: assets of a wife put to work to build small businesses, often for a husband. The practice challenges the traditional view of gold as an idle asset, yet economist Jayati Ghosh insists that obsessive buying of gold deprives India of genuine investment.

JAYATI GHOSH: Gold is a pure leakage out of the system. It basically is the same as putting your money under a mattress. Well, it's really putting gold bars under the mattress, so it's a huge waste, especially for a poor economy that needs investment.

MCCARTHY: The Reserve Bank of India, their Fed, has been struggling to limit gold imports to stop depleting India's foreign reserves and to cut the current account deficit. It's had some success. But with hundreds of millions of Indians without a bank account or access to credit, using gold to secure their dreams is not about to stop.

Back at Muthoot Finance, Sanjeev Dey's wife, Snigdha, says she'd put her gold ring up as security again if the couple decides to expand their flower stall.

SNIGDHA PAUL: Actually, if I'm getting the benefit, then why would I say no?

DEY: That money is earning more money. Money begets money.

PAUL: After all, it's mine: the business and gold and cash, everything is mine. So in return, I'm getting more benefit.

MCCARTHY: Snigdha is reminded that the lender has already returned her gold and that the couple's loan is now secured exclusively by her husband's gold. Snighda just smiles. His jewelry is my jewelry. It's the new India, where traditional adornments of the old India are producing a new form of wealth for women. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

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