Gold leaf: a look behind the scenes
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.
The gold leaf squares are ubiquitous around Myanmar, garnishing Buddha images and pagodas alike.
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.
This machine compresses the gold into 20-foot-long ribbons.
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.