An integral part of life, Myanmar gold leaf appears everywhere throughout the country once known as Burma. You see it gilding the exterior of pagodas. Step inside temples and you will find locals lined up to rub small squares of gold leaf on the Buddha as offerings. Visit one of the lacquer ware workshops and find gold leaf being affixed to boxes, trays and bangles as decoration. Gold leaf can be added with other ingredients to make traditional medicines. You may also find women applying gold leaf to their face as a form of cosmetics. Come along as WanderShopper explores a gold leaf workshop, visits sacred temples and pagodas and of course gets in some shopping, this time in Myanmar.
While in Mandalay, an interesting stop is at King Galon, the primary manufacturer of gold leaf for Myanmar. Creating gold leaf requires a lot of time and physical effort before the gold reaches its final whisper thin state. They begin by working with 3 tickles (or about 1.928 ounces) of gold bullion that is placed in an extruder where a 20 foot long ribbon of gold comes out that is about 3/4 inches wide. This strip in cut into 5 foot pieces where each of those is cut into another 200 equal pieces of gold. Each piece is placed between two sheets of bamboo paper where all 200 separated gold pieces are stacked on top of each other and secured together into a bundle. Once strapped into a form which is then attached to a rock slab. A man stands behind and straddles the rock, lifts a 6 pound hammer and beats the gold for half an hour.
After the initial hammering session, the gold has spread out considerably. This flattened flake is cut into six equal pieces, stacked between bamboo paper again and bundled. The previous batch of 200 pieces has now been turned into 1,200 pieces of gold. Once again, the packet is strapped into its form and again, it is beaten for another half an hour with a 6 pound hammer. To fully get the picture of what these gold beaters are going through, you need to realize that they are working in heat in excess of 100 degrees with high humidity and no air conditioning. It is also exceptionally loud as many men are working at one time striking the gold with thousands of swings. They are working in an area of the building that is more like a covered pavilion so at least they are not in direct sun but these are tremendously uncomfortable working conditions.
Once the second half hour of pounding is complete, every fifth gold flake of the 1,200 pieces is pulled out and cut into another 3 equal pieces so that another 720 flakes of gold have been generated. These flakes are again sandwiched between bamboo paper and they are now hammered for another 5 hours! During this final stage, time is kept and strokes counted by using a special clock called a clepsydra. Made from half of a coconut shell, the clepsydra has a small hole in the bottom of it and water is allowed to drip through. The water is collected below and the gold beater must complete 120 strokes before the cup is full, which usually happens 18 times an hour. The strength of three men is required to complete this final stage. The constant beating makes the entire package of gold really hot as well as causing the gold flakes to spread and expand while enabling the gold not to stick to the bamboo paper. While researching my recent post on Whirling Dervishes, I learned that their 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. Although hard work, gold beaters can be really inspirational!
After this final stage of hammering, the gold is now considered gold leaf. The finished leaf is cut into squares of either 2 inches, 1 1/2 inches or sometimes 1 3/4 inches in size. They are then placed between new pieces of paper a little larger than their size and packed up together with thread. This packaging work is completed indoors by women employees at King Galon.
At the end of your tour of King Galon, you are offered a piece of gold leaf to adorn your face. It is common in Myanmar for women to add a paste of ground wood called thanakha as a cosmetic beauty enhancement. You can learn more about it in my earlier post Discovering Thanakha. It is sometimes applied in decorative patterns. Bits of gold leaf can be applied in the same way and illuminate your skin with a gold sparkle. King Galon also offers a gift shop where you can purchase gold leaf as well as an assortment of items that have been gilded. Before we take a look at their offerings, let’s explore some of the ways gold leaf is used around Myanmar.
You will find gold leaf used as offerings and decorations throughout your travels in Myanmar. The majority of the people are Buddhist (89%) and impressive pagodas and temples abound. Almost everyone will enter the country in Yangon where a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda is a must. It is the most sacred pagoda in the country and contains relics from four past Buddhas. It is an impressive 325 feet high and was built over 2,600 years ago. While in Bagan, you can also plan a visit to nearby Shwezigon Pagoda which is pictured above. Shwezigon Pagoda was completed by 1102 AD and also contains relics of the Buddha. In both pagodas, the central stupa has been completely gilded with gold leaf. Make sure you visit at different times of the day as light reflects off the gold differently as the day progresses. They are especially beautiful at dawn and sunset.
While in Bagan, you will be spending most of your time touring the remains of some of the 2,200 temples and pagodas scattered throughout the plains. At its height between the 11th and 13th century, the kingdom of Pagan had over 10,000 temples. Many of them are still active and during your visit you will have an opportunity to purchase some gold leaf at the entrance and make an offering by rubbing it on an image of the Buddha. In some case, you will even need to climb a ladder to gain access and add your gold where you feel it is most needed or where you want to gain merit.
During my visit I learned that most people in Myanmar do not have savings accounts. The lack of deposits isn’t so much about there being no money left in the budget after bills as it is about all the extra funds are regularly spent on purchasing gold leaf to use as offerings at a temple. Really it’s a different kind of savings account – one for your next life by building merit instead of stockpiling money for this one. So much gold is offered that it is not unusual for details of the Buddha to begin to disappear morphing over time into large gold rocks. In the photo above, you can see the current state of five Buddhas at a temple near Inle Lake. Below is a photo that was taken in 1934. You can see even then that there details had been obscured by the layers of gold leaf.
The photo at the start of this post is from a temple in Mandalay. Here, too, the details of the Buddha have been hidden under many layers of gold leaf. The photo below shows a progression beginning in 1901. This Buddha is significantly larger than the five we’ve seen from Inle Lake. Although Mandalay’s Buddha has not morphed into a large gold nugget, there are interesting bumps that are starting to form all over the surface. The people of Myanmar are very devout and gold leaf is regularly being offered and accumulated.
While I was in Bagan, I was excited to tour a workshop where lacquer ware was crafted by skilled artisans. I’m sure it’s not a surprise that both locals and tourists like to choose designs that include some gold leaf. The artisans create many different objects including elaborately detailed trays, lidded boxes, cups, and even jewelry like bangles. In a future post, I will share with you the process used to craft lacquered pieces as well as some of the finds in their shop. In the photo below, you can see an artist applying gold leaf all over the surface of a small container. Before he added the gold, he painted on an adhesive in the design he wanted. The gold leaf will stick to the adhesive and he will be able to burnish off the remaining bits of gold which will then reveal the design.
Let’s revisit our friends back at King Galon. You may have been asking yourself who King Galon was. A galon, also known as a garuda, is a popular figure in Hindu and Buddhist traditions and literature in southeast Asia. He is seen in the form of a bird-like creature that is often in a cosmic battle with a naga (snake.) The unpopular British colonizers were often represented by a snake and the people of (then) Burma as a galon. A monk and physician named Saya San was the leader of a rebellion against the British in the early 1930’s. Saya San changed his name to Thupannaka Galon Raja and his followers were organized into the Galon Army and he was proclaimed “king.”
King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop has a nice selection of items to bring home and remember the brilliance of Myanmar.The picture above shows the stages of adding gilding to elephants which are one of many figures available for purchase. On the right is the unadorned carved wood elephant. It is then lacquered in black. Afterwards, gold leaf is generously applied all over the figure. You will notice in the vase behind them are a number of gold figures on sticks. These are images of the Buddha that can be inserted into your hair for decoration just as some women might use a pair of chopsticks to hold their hair in a bun. Women in Myanmar have a number of beautiful ornamentation for their hair and I will have to do a post some day to show you some of the options I discovered.
Many different figures are offered for purchase. Images of the Buddha are popular as are representations of galon. I found a number of rabbits (we were in the year of the rabbit at the time I was visiting) as well as many elephants and turtles. Owls are another popular image in Myanmar. Having a pair of them at your business is said to bring good fortune. Before I left Myanmar, I picked up a pair of gold and lacquered owls for my office back in East Lansing.
Another popular item at King Galon is a gold leaf. An actual leaf that has been coated in gold leaf. In this case, they are coating banyan leaves. Banyans are significant to Buddhists because the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment while meditating under a Banyan tree of the species Sacred Fig. It is often called a Bodhi tree. Here singles, doubles and even triples of leaves have been covered in gold leaf and then mounted on a card covered in blue, black or burgundy velvet. They make a lovely and inexpensive remembrance of gift for someone back at home.
Always on duty, this WanderShopper found a few things to come home with her from the King Galon gift shop. Of course I purchased a pack of gold leaf squares. Not only to these remind me of the tour of King Galon but also of all the times I saw them being offered in beautiful temples throughout Myanmar. I purchased a small gilded statue of the Buddha as well as turtle that has already been gifted to my turtle hoarding friend. I selected a small gold banyan leaf on blue velvet, two Buddha hair sticks and, pictured on the left side, a small Buddha pendant or amulet. Not a bad take for one shop!
Myanmar is a beautiful country full of wonderful people. I was continuously wonder-struck by the amazing destinations I visited on this WanderTours trip. They have another tour there scheduled for November of this year. If you register by April 15th, you’ll also receive a beautiful coffee table book called Humanitas III: The People of Burma. I would love to share more of my images from my travels in Myanmar where gold leaf was in use. Please visit the WanderShopper fanpage on Facebook and the Myanmar album. While you are there, be sure to “like” WanderShopper so you will be alerted to future posts as well as Facebook only content.
Have you ever used gold leaf before? Was it as an offering, part of a craft project or for decorating? Let’s learn more about your experiences.