By A. Ananthalakshmi
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Top bullion consumer China has been importing more gold in September than in the previous month due to demand from retailers stocking up for the upcoming National Day holiday, market sources said.
Demand in India - the second biggest buyer of the metal - is also set to pick up as the festival and wedding season kicked off this week.
With gold trading close to a key psychological level of $1,200 an ounce, markets are keenly watching physical demand in Asia - the top consuming region - to see if it could lend support to prices.
"The physical volumes have been high this month compared to August. I would say imports could be at least 30 percent higher than last month," said a trader with one of the 15 importing banks in China.
From Oct. 1, Chinese markets will be closed for a week, and retails sales are expected to increase.
Data on Thursday showed that China's net gold imports from Hong Kong rose in August from a three-year low in July.
Another trader said imports will remain elevated all through the fourth quarter due to seasonal demand.
"Since the price is near $1,200, we have seen more purchases. If gold dips below that level, we can see a further increase," the trader said.
Premiums on the Shanghai Gold Exchange were about $5-$6 an ounce on Friday, largely steady from last week.
In India, an inauspicious phase called Shradh - a period for paying homage to ancestors - ended on Wednesday, giving way to a string of festivals.
"Typically, as soon as Shradh is over, demand should kick in," said a dealer with one of the top bullion importing banks in India. "There is a feeling that gold prices will go further down, so some have chosen to wait a little longer before purchasing immediately."
"With gold prices lower, there are expectations for good demand this time as we head to October."
The nine-day Hindu festival of Navratri began on Thursday, which will then be followed by Dussehra, Dhanteras and Diwali - all considered auspicious time periods to buy gold jewellery, coins or bars.
Since the wedding season also kicks off around the same time, lasting all through the year, markets expect strong purchases. Gold forms an essential part of a bride's dowry in Indian weddings.
Monthly gold imports are set to rise by as much 50 percent from current levels while premiums could almost double to as high as $15 an ounce because of the festivities and wedding season, industry sources told Reuters earlier this month.
Indian premiums are currently less than $10 an ounce. In other trading hubs such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo, premiums were largely unchanged from a week ago.
(Editing by Sunil Nair)