The streets of Myanmar may not be paved with gold, but their shrines and temples are another matter altogether. It’s hard to imagine a more encrusted realm. No wonder it’s called the golden land.
Applying gold leaf to objects of religious significance is a common and ancient ritual in Myanmar because gilding a Buddha image or stupa bestows great credit on the gilder. Not surprisingly, creating gold leaf is a significant cottage industry and dates back to the time of the early monarchs. Mandalay is the heart of the industry.
The Golden Rock – Kyaiktiyo – attracts its fare share of gold leaf as one of the Myanmar’s most revered Buddhist sites. It’s said that the rock is held in place by a strand of the Buddha’s hair.
The Buddha image at the Mahamuni Pagoda near Mandalay – a major pilgrimage site – is absolutely bulbous with accumulated gold leaf diligently applied by male worshipers. Female worshipers must stay behind a designated point.
Making gold leaf is a painstakingly process. A team of (very fit) young men repeatedly and rhythmically pound wafers of gold trapped between sheets of parchment with wooden mallets, a process that takes many hours. At a given call the pounders change the rhythm, perhaps to break the monotony of the task. The heat generated by the relentless striking steadily thins the wafers. Luckily gold is highly malleable.
What a way to keep fit!
Once this exacting procedure has rendered the gold foil to its desired thickness – or thinness – the sheets are transferred for cutting and sorting and packaging by a team of women. The typical gold-leaf square measures just 0.000127cm, said to be thinner than ink on the printed page.
Gold leaf not only adorns temples and shrines. It adds lustre to already exquisite laquerware – boxes, trays, bracelets and numerous other items – especially to shiny black pieces. It’s also used for traditional medicines and in make-up to add sparkle to the a woman’s skin. A golden glow indeed!