Chettikulangara, Kerala: One day last month, under the careful supervision of S. Rajashree, the portly deputy commissioner of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) in Haripad, Kerala, 20 temple employees were busy counting the fortnightly earnings of goddess Shree Bhagavati, the temple deity. Some sat on the floor, sorting Rs10, Rs5, Rs1 and 50-paisa coins into little heaps around them. Others sorted the heaps into neat piles of ten coins each, making long rows on the Sunmica-topped tables in the temple courtyard.
Two collection officers from Dhanalaxmi Bank waited. When the sorting was done, they would pack the coins into plastic packets of Rs1,000 and sell them to those vendors who need them—shopkeepers, retail malls, local bus companies and government clients. They would deposit the currency they receive in exchange for coins into the account of the Travancore Devaswom Board (which controls and manages 1,500 temples in Kerala’s Travancore area) on behalf of this 1,200-year-old Chettikulangara devi temple.
Every month, officials of Dhanalaxmi Bank—it calls itself God’s own bank in God’s own country—collect hundreds of thousands of coins from the hundis (donation box) of 2,100 temples from across the state and redistribute them to vendors in the mainstream economy as a part of special services that they render to the temples.
Bankers to gods: Temple officials count coins at the Chettikulangara temple in Alappuzha district in Kerala. Photo by Sivaram.V/Mint.
Last month, the vaults of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram were opened by court order. The chambers revealed gold coins, ornaments, diamonds, precious stones and other treasures worth anywhere between Rs50,000 crore and Rs1trillion. The discovery mesmerized the world, renewed interest in temple wealth, and how religious institutions manage their money.
This is the story of the bank that has helped 2,100 temples under the government-controlled Travancore Devaswom Board handle their finances for four decades. Dhanalaxmi Bank, one of India’s fastest growing private sector banks, also has the largest number of religious institutional clients.
It helped that the bank was founded in 1927 by 11 Brahmins to raise capital to pay for marriages in the community. That helped it establish an early close relationship with temples uneasy about people from other religion and castes managing their money. Soon, special religious services became a part of the bank’s history and ethos. Muralidharan R., chief operations officer, says the bank has developed “a unique skill in understanding and catering to the banking needs of religious institutions” and “we would never want to let go of this advantage wherever we go.”
Serving with devotion
The story of Dhanalaxmi Bank’s involvement with the gods began almost four decades ago with Kerala’s famous Sabarimala temple. Since 1977, the bank has provided “yeoman service at the Sabarimala temple,” said N. Vasu, commissioner of the Travancore Devaswom Board, explaining why the bank is so closely associated with the temples of the state where it was formed and why the board will stick with the bank for all its banking needs.
The bank provides Sabarimala, which sees 30 million pilgrims between November and January, with a bouquet of unusual banking services.
Every October, a company- wide email is sent to the employees of Dhanalaxmi Bank, seeking male volunteers (women are not allowed inside the temple) to staff the Sabarimala branches of the bank. Last year, the email read, “Dear colleagues, our bank is the sole banker to Sabarimala Devaswom. We manage the entire collection of Devaswom and distribution of prasadam at Sabarimala. Last year, more than 500 employees participated in the prestigious Sabarimala deputation. 78% of the staff expressed their willingness to work there for another period. This year, too, we will be looking to depute full-time and temporary staff to Sabarimala branches every week for smooth functioning of the activities. We seek volunteers from various sections of employees who would be keen to work at Sabarimala.”
Apart from the volunteers, the email promised to depute suitable officers and staff from the branches and other verticals for smooth operations during the festival and exhorted employees that, “Sabarimala is a prestigious engagement for our Bank. Our volunteers/deputed staff are proud ambassadors of our Bank and we expect them to work with utmost dedication and highest degree of integrity. As we had communicated last year, ‘Service with devotion’ continues to be our motto.”
The volunteer branch
P. Jayakumar, manager of microfinance and agri-business at the Haripad branch, was one of the bank’s volunteers at Sabarimala last year. “About 25 of us were employed on shifts of 10 hours each, just to count coins that were offered to Lord Ayyappa. The coin counting went on day and night. Late nights, when the crowds were less, the temple allowed us to use a tractor to collect the coins from the bank branch and take them away to other branches in the state,” he said.
The collection of coins used to be the biggest problem for the Ayyappa temple, recalls P. Jayakumar, executive director of the bank. “Those days, 70% of the temple collection was in the form of coins. It was a headache for them and no other bank was willing to offer the services we did—to go to their doorstep, count their money for them, take it, store it and use it in all our branches across the country for the next eight months,” he said.
With the currency value weakening, the number of coins has gone down as a proportion of total offerings, but the number of devotees who throng the temple during the period is so high that the bank still needs tractors to move the coin-filled sacks from the mountain temple to the branch below.
Manoj H., who volunteered as manager of the main Sabarimala branch for three years, said most volunteers come for a week to 10 days. “They come with a mindset of service. So even though there are rotation shifts, they stay for all hours. Even if you tell someone to go and rest, they won’t go. When we are serving at Sabrimala, we are not working… it is a spirit of devotion there.”
The bank, which has expanded from 279 branches and ATMs in 2008 to 744 in 2010, is also pursuing the accounts of other religious groups such as churches and mosques.
The bank offered a Rs1 crore credit line to the 1,000-year-old St Mary Jacobite Syrian Church in Kottayam to convince it to add Dhanalaxmi to the list of lenders the church already works with (Catholic Syrian Bank, State Bank of Travancore and Canara Bank).
“We have been trying to land this client for the last two decades,” said Rakesh, the Kottayam branch manager who was instrumental in wooing the church trustees. So, “when the government gave permission for setting up a new ATM in the city, we chose to put it here, almost at the outskirts of the town, right outside the church, for the benefit of its parishioners. We also do collections from the church. We count their coins for them as well… it saves them the trouble.”
The trustees say they value these special services. “We collect about Rs1 lakh during off-season weeks. Trying to count so much money, most of it in coins, is a lot of work. We appreciate the bank doing it for us,” said Prince Elias, trustee of the church.
Rakesh said the special services were part of a well-thought-out strategy. “The church does not need money from the bank. It has enough of its own. In just 10 years, it has gone from owning 20 acres of land around here to 60 acres. But when it has an annual fete in September (celebrating the birth of the Virgin Mary), it has to make arrangements for about three million pilgrims and has cash flow situations. Our loan will help it tide over that,” he explained.
He hopes that because of these special services, the church will eventually move all its business to the bank and Dhanalaxmi will get all the accounts of all the employees of the various institutions within the church trust: its many schools, colleges, hospitals and nursing homes.
The idea is to make it like the Mata Amritanandamayi ashram that exclusively banks with Dhanalaxmi Bank; the bank has opened a branch inside the Amritapuri ashram complex to manage over 30,000 accounts of ashram employees and residents.
In Mumbai, the bank is trying to evolve a strategy to address the foreign currency needs of Haj pilgrims, while its Kottayam branch has managed collections from the city Central Juma Masjid for 25 years.
“They have taken care of all our salary accounts for about as long,” said Mohamad Ousuf, secretary of the trust.
“Since Islam does not believe in interest, we ensure that the interest money is dealt with as per individual requirements in adherence to Islamic law,” said P. Manikandan, branch manager of the Manacaud branch.
Bank and temple officials were tight-lipped about numbers and refused to share any information about the value of assets such as land and gold that belonged to the temples. They also refused to give an idea of how much money was in the Travancore Devoswam Board’s accounts and whether it was reinvested since that would be a violation of client confidentiality.
“But I can safely tell you that even though we are available to help the temples invest the money they earn, they do not need our advice,” said the bank’s Jayakumar. “They have their own advisers who tell them what to do.”