Gold leaf: a look be­hind the scenes

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - RJ VOGT rj.vogt@mm­times.com

HE pauses to wipe sweat from his brow, which drips in the heat of a Man­dalay af­ter­noon.

The respite is brief, and af­ter just a few sec­onds to catch his breath, Zaw Win re­turns to the back­break­ing work that is his liveli­hood – pound­ing gold leaf in Man­dalay’s King Galon work­shop.

The shop, not far from the leg­endary Ma­hamuni Bud­dha im­age, is one of few in the Golden Land, pro­duc­ing gold leaf for pago­das around the up­per Dry Zone and as far away as Yan­gon. The painstak­ing process takes years of prepa­ra­tion and hun­dreds of man-hours.

It all starts, not with gold, but with a spe­cial bam­boo treat­ment process to cre­ate the waxy pa­per on which the gold is laid. Farm­ers har­vest younger-than-6months-old bam­boo be­cause it is not yet hol­low, slic­ing the wood thinly into strips. The strips are stored in ce­ramic jars for at least three years, where they stew and soften in lime wa­ter.

Af­ter three years, the soft bam­boo is washed for around 36 hours and then ground by a wooden mor­tar and pes­tle for 15 days. Tin Aung, a tour guide with Her­itage Line’s Anawratha cruise ship who fre­quently leads groups to the King Galon shop, said this el­e­ment of pro­duc­tion is cru­cial – the re­sult­ing bam­boo paste is thor­oughly mixed with wa­ter and poured into a mould, where it dries into the pa­per used to layer be­tween gold strips.

Women beat the pa­per for sev­eral hours, bur­nish­ing it to a waxy fin­ish that pre­vents stick­ing, and fi­nally – af­ter all that – the gold process is ready to be­gin.

Three ticals (or about 2 ounces) of gold bul­lion is melted in a separate room, later cooling into a large flat mould. Us­ing a press, the work­ers then feed the large mould through a crank, flat­ten­ing it even fur­ther un­til they have a 20-foot-long rib­bon of gold.

The long rib­bon is cut into 5-foot-long strips, which are fur­ther sliced into 200 pieces. Each piece is placed be­tween the afore­men­tioned bur­nished bam­boo pa­per, cre­at­ing bricks of gold-pa­per-gold lay­ers. Men like Zaw Win wrap the bricks in deer skin, and then the pound­ing starts.

With 6-pound sledges, the men pound the gold for about half an hour, spread­ing the gold out con­sid­er­ably. These flakes are then cut again, this time into six pieces, be­fore be­ing stacked be­tween the bam­boo pa­per and pack­ag­ing the lay­ers in deer skin once again.

What started as 200 pieces has now mul­ti­plied into 1200, and the men get back to work. Swing­ing away, they spend around five hours on one brick, of­ten mark­ing time by us­ing an an­cient time-keep­ing de­vice known as a clep­sy­dra, which is es­sen­tially half of a co­conut float­ing in a bucket with a hole in the bot­tom. Zaw Win said he tries to fin­ish 120 strokes be­fore the cup fills and sinks, and added that they aim for 18 clep­sy­dra cy­cles per hour. That’s ap­prox­i­mately 2160 swings per hour.

By the time he’s done, the gold has flat­tened and the deer­skin-bound brick of lay­ers has heated up from the ki­netic en­ergy. Women in the room next door un­tie the lay­ers and pack­age the gold for sale. Work­ing eight hours a day, one woman joked that “the job takes pa­tience. That’s why it’s all women in here!”

Us­ing a tool made from buf­falo horn, the women peel the gold off the bam­boo pa­per. Tal­cum pow­der keeps the leaf from stick­ing to fin­gers, al­low­ing them to stick the leaf to squares of pa­per bound around the coun­try.

De­vout Bud­dhists pur­chase the fi­nal prod­uct – a 2-inch-by-2 inch square of pa­per thin gold – for K1000-K2000. Ap­ply­ing it to a Bud­dha im­age or pagoda ex­te­rior is be­lieved to help the pa­tron gain merit, but some pagoda of­fi­cials have be­gun lim­it­ing the lo­ca­tions where gold leaf may be ap­plied.

At the Ma­hamuni im­age, a pic­ture from 1901 shows the Bud­dha with thin, hu­man-like fin­gers. But a visit in July re­vealed that the fin­gers have swollen af­ter mil­lions of pil­grims made their gold-leaf of­fer­ings. The care­tak­ers, as a pre­cau­tion, do not al­low gold leaf to be ap­plied to the Bud­dha’s face, lest it too be swal­lowed by the do­na­tions of the well-mean­ing de­vout.

Photo: RJ Vogt

The gold leaf squares are ubiq­ui­tous around Myan­mar, gar­nish­ing Bud­dha im­ages and pago­das alike.

Photo: Julie Mrozin­ski

At King Galon, the leaf is in­te­grated with lac­quer­ware and wood carv­ings as sou­venirs.

The Ma­hamuni im­age has trans­formed dra­mat­i­cally due to gold leaf lay­ers. The photo on the right is dated 1901, while the one on the left shows the im­age to­day. A woman peels gold.

Photo: Julie Mrozin­ski

This ma­chine com­presses the gold into 20-foot-long rib­bons.

Photo: RJ Vogt

Tin Aung, a tour guide fa­mil­iar with the King Galun shop, demon­strates the bam­boo pa­per-mak­ing process.

Zaw Win pounds the stack of gold leaf and bam­boo pa­per for hours on end.

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