Portraits in Gold: The King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop, Mandalay, Myanmar

Portrait: Young Burmese woman with thanakha on her face, in a gold leaf workshop.

Gold Leaf Worker
There’s always time for a smile!

Myanmar truly is “The Golden Land.”

From the mines to the temples, gold is everywhere. Shwedagon Pagoda, for example, is covered in 60 tons of gold, pounded into thin leaves.

Gold is an integral part of Burmese life. Every day, faithful Burmese apply gold leaf to their favourite Buddha images as offerings. So much gold leaf has been pasted to the face and front of country’s most revered Buddha at the Mahamuni Temple (A future post: watch this space!) that it has become almost unrecognisable.

Those gold leaves are the result of hours of hard labour, as I discovered on a visit to the King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop in Mandalay last September.

Now, I confess: the process of turning rolled gold into leaf is not something I’ve ever given thought to, but if you Google “Goldbeating” you will discover (as I did) that it has its own (unreferenced) Wikipedia entry. According to Wiki, the Egyptians were the first – 5000 years ago – to hammer gold into leaf for gilding. “Except for the introduction of a cast iron hammer and a few other innovations, the tools and techniques have remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.”

I had no trouble believing that, as I watched the workers sweating as they swung their fifteen pound hammers against a “cutch” – a packet of about 150 sheets of skin interleaved with small lumps of gold and tied together with parchment –  rhythmically until the gold was about .000005 of an inch thin.

No artificial light. No artificial ventilation. Just pounding heat and noise.

Portrait: shirtless Burmese male next  to the King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop

King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop
A gold pounder takes a break next to the Workshop entrance.

Burmese male explaining gold leaf

Guide with the Gold
Our guide explains the process…

Burmese male in longhi hammering gold leaf

… while workers hammer in the background.

A gold beating hammer in motion at the King Galon Workshop, Mandalay.

Hammer in Motion
Turning gold into leaf takes a lot of heavy, rhythmic pounding.

Portrait: A shirtless Burmese man in a longhi, King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop, Mandalay

A worker takes a short break and poses for a picture …

A burmese man in a longhi ties a gold leaf parchment packet to a pounding block.

… before tying a new parchment packet to the block.

I couldn’t help but wonder at the name of the workshop: King Galon.

Galon, better known in the West as a garuda, is the half-man half-raptor vehicle of Vishnu and enemy of the naga, the dragon snake. The image has long been an integral part of iconography in Southeast Asia. In the 1930’s, the galon became the symbol of Burmese resistance against colonial rule, with Saya San, the rebel leader becoming known as the Galon King. Followers of Saya San were often tattooed with garuda symbols to show their allegiance.

Back of a male worker at King Galon Gold Leaf factory.

Worker’s Back
Sweat and light play against religious tattoos.

A shirtless Burmese man with a gold-working hammer

A Man and his Hammer
I think he is used to pausing for the tourists.

Burmese male

Mythical struggles still play out in tattoo images.

Burmese male hands fanning a packet of gold leaf.

Fanning a packet of gold leaf.

Used Parchment Wrappers on a cement floor: King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop, Mandalay

Used parchment wrappers collect on the cement floor.

The packaging process is as delicate as the pounding is physical. This is the women’s domain. In a small airless room several women, seated on rattan mats on the floor around low tables, work at cutting and packaging the small squares of gold leaf. The windows are tightly closed, as any wind might blow the precious gold away.

Burmese woman in a backlit space: cutting gold leaf.

A Backlit Workspace
A young woman carefully cuts the thinly pounded gold leaf.

Burmese woman

Hands at Work
It is important to achieve small squares – without tears in the precious gold.

Portrait: Young Burmese woman in a Gold Leaf work space.

Leaf Worker
No extended maternity leave for this young mum.

Baby Goldbeater

Her son, the Baby Goldbeater

Burmese baby boy hammering a small packet with a wooden stick.

… clearly knows where his future lies!

Portrait: Middle-aged burmese woman working in a gold leaf factory.

Senior Leaf Worker
This woman has more than twenty years experience in all aspects of the gold leaf packaging.

Once packaged, the gold leaf squares are sold, so that people might offer them to the Buddha – or eat them, as some Burmese believe small amounts of gold are good for your for health. Some of the gold is gilded onto souvenirs for sale.

Small souvenir models of the Burmese Kyaikto (Golden Rock) on a shelf.

Kyaikto – Golden Rock
Golden Souvenirs from the Golden Land

Row of black and gold Burmese owls on a souvenir shop shelf.

Golden Owls
Considered lucky by Burmese, these owls should be kept in pairs.

Text: Happy Travels

It was an interesting visit – a brief insight into other people’s lives.

Still, you can add goldbeating to the growing list of “jobs I’m glad I don’t have to do!”

‘Till next time ~

Pictures: 13September20012

  • Karl Grobl - February 28, 2013 - 9:10 am

    Fantastic post Ursula!
    Wonderful images and tons of great information that I never knew about the gold beating process! I’ll share this post with MM and all the folks on the current tour.
    Happy shooting and I can’t wait for your next blog-post.

    • Ursula - February 28, 2013 - 9:35 am

      Awe, thanks Karl.
      I missed a lot of the shots I wanted – don’t tell anybody! 😉ReplyCancel

  • Signe Westerberg - March 1, 2013 - 6:33 am

    Fantastic, fancy in this day and age the art of gold leaf hasn’t changed, thanks as always for the share 🙂ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - March 2, 2013 - 5:54 am

      Thanks, Signe, for taking the time out of your busy schedule!! 😀ReplyCancel

  • kokim - April 8, 2013 - 1:18 pm

    chào bạn
    tôi và bạn cũng ở mandalay cùng ngày rồi
    bạn có nhiều hình ảnh giống như tôi có
    hình bạn chụp đẹp lắm
    tôi thíchReplyCancel

    • Ursula - April 8, 2013 - 10:46 pm

      me and you on the same day and also in Mandalay you have a lot of pictures like I have you take a beautiful picture I like”

      Hi Xuan Giang,
      Thanks for your visit to my PhotoBlog! It was a neat place. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Jens - February 18, 2015 - 12:35 pm

    How to find this Workshop? Any address?ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - February 18, 2015 - 1:14 pm

      Hi Jens,
      Thanks for your visit.
      The King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop is at:
      36th St, 77/78, Mandalay Myanmar

  • adolfo - September 1, 2016 - 4:36 am

    Ursula and friends of Mandalay. I live in Brazil and wish to buy gold leaf for offering to Buddha that are made in their country. I would be very happy to get this wonderful work you see on this site. Please notify me how proveder to make purchase. A big Brazilian hug.ReplyCancel

  • adolfo - September 1, 2016 - 5:09 am

    Ursula. Good Morning . If you can send me email or other way of communication with: The King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop, as would be happy to buy this wonderful product. A big hug . Thank you.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - September 1, 2016 - 10:55 am

      Hi Adolfo,
      Thanks for your visit! I’ve sent you an email.
      Cheers, UrsulaReplyCancel

      • adolfo - September 1, 2016 - 8:55 pm

        Úrsula.Boa tarde . Obrigado pela resposta breve que me fez . Agradeço sua orientação e estou procurando uma agência em Mandalay que possa me ajudar . Parabéns pelas fotos . Espero que faça muitas viagens . Um grande abraço e bom final de semana .ReplyCancel

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