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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ~