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Lending a Golden Touch

I n Myanmar, gold seems ubiquitous. Burmese pagodas and temples are adorned with gold and inside Buddha statues, walls, and ceilings are also made of gold. So much gold is applied on to the faces of the Buddha statues by the devotees as a part of their prayers, devotion and offering that it has lead to the masking of the detailed features on the face. To a foreigner, it could be a matter of great surprise that how come a developing nation like Myanmar has so much gold. Yangon’s most famous Buddhist site Shwedagon Pagoda, Phaung Daw Oo’s images of the Buddha at Inle Lake, the Mahamyatmuni image in Mandalay, and hundreds of pagodas and Buddha statues in Bagan, Pegu and elsewhere are all made in gold. But the fact is that all that glitters is not actually gold, but gold leaf.

Gold leaf is hammering of the gold into extremely thin unbroken sheets and then used for gilding. Gilding means applying fine gold leaf to solid surfaces such as wood, stone, or metal to give a thin coating of gold. It’s a decorative technique and also an essential product for Buddhist life. Art of gold leaf making is a time-honored tradition in Myanmar because gold leaf has been an integral component of Burmese architecture for centuries. Buddhist monasteries and Pagodas were golden-domed as they stood up to weather deterioration. Perhaps that’s why gold was used in Byzantine and Roman churches and basilicas, as well. The method of producing gold leaf is universal, basically remaining the same everywhere for thousands of years. The key difference lies in the materials that are used, the beating process and the number of times the gold is beaten. Explaining the process of gold leaf making in Myanmar, an industry expert says, “The process of making gold leaf is long and comprises many steps. Pure gold is melted, and small amounts of silver and copper are added to produce the purity and colour required – silver for a lighter colour, copper for a redder one. Thin and flat gold sheet 0.75 inch wide and 5 feet out of 12 grams of gold is made. That gold sheet is divided into 200 pieces. Each piece put into two layers of bamboo papers like the filling of a sandwich”. 22-karat yellow gold is used for making gold leaf. The pieces are sometimes transferred to new layers of black paper for additional beatings. This process is repeated many times, until every layer of gold is rendered into a high quality leaf. The gold is then carefully moved from the black paper to white paper for the cutting process.

For centuries, the process of making gold leaf was manual. In Mandalay, Burma’s second biggest city, one can hear the rhythmic hammering sounds where half-naked men in gold leaf workshops sweat heavily as they pound pieces of the metal into the thinnest delicate foil. These artisans as gold beaters can be really inspirational. It’s believed that Whirling Dervishes’ founder, the poet Rumi, was first inspired to whirl when he heard the rhythm of the gold beaters’ punctuating beat accompanying the call to prayer, in a market in Persia. Initially, there were a few specialized artisans who could do it. Many traders dealing in gold leaf for many generations say that in the past Thai and Chinese businessmen visited their workshops to see how gold leaf is made. But now they have copied the techniques to make gold leaf and exporting it to us. “The process has been modernized by the development and use of precision robots so as to ensure that each gold-leaf produced has the most even thickness possible,” says Thawdar, a trader dealing in gold leaf.

Entire process of making gold leaf is hard work and requires a lot of strength and patience and can be witnessed in a workshop consisting of two main areas: one for man to beat gold, the rest for women to cut and pack gold leaf. In area for men, the stone pedestals are placed side by side in a row, next to a large fifteen pound sledgehammer to beat thin gold leaf. Gold leaf specifications are customized. “Orders of gold leaf are made according to size specifications made by the client depending upon the product it has to be used” says Thawdar. The most common size ordered is around 2 square inches, which sells for about K39,000 for a pack of 100. High commercial tax on gold price has made gold leaf traders and suppliers face many challenges, lately. According to a trader, “In the past, we used to pay K200, 000 for tax. But recently, the tax has increased. Besides, gold leaf producers face additional expenses such as wages of labour, cost of raw materials and industry registration fees”.

It seems gold-leaf market is a crowded game these days. There is a competition amongst many gold leaf traders and producers. Lately, Thai and Chinese pilgrims are bringing gold leaf from their own countries to offer at the Burmese famous pagodas and images, but are being regularly blocked by some pagoda authorities from adding imported foil to Burmese places of worship. “If we allowed such action, every foreigner will bring imported foils,” said a spokesperson for the Mahamyatmuni Pagoda in Mandalay.

Gold as an element has intrinsic healing properties and therefore is used in Burmese traditional and modern medicines along with other ingredients. The earliest records of the use of gold for medicinal and healing purposes come from Alexandria, Egypt. Over 5,000 years ago, the Egyptians used gold for mental, physical and spiritual purification. They believed that gold in the body worked by stimulating the life force and raising the level of vibration on all levels. Alexandria’s alchemists developed an “elixir” made of liquid gold. They believed that gold was a mystical metal that represented the perfection of matter, and that its presence in the body would enliven, rejuvenate, and cure a multitude of diseases as well as restore youth and perfect health. Gold has great anti-ageing properties. So it is used for facial masks and body packs. “The skin glows brilliantly after a facial massage with the cream that has gold in it” says the massage expert at a spa centre in Yangon. Gold has great anti-ageing properties. So it is used for facial masks and body packs. So what are you waiting for, just go ahead and be the golden beauty.