Once one steps into Burma, he will definitely see glittering golden temples every single location he goes. As the saying goes, “Any place you point, there will be a pagoda”. Golden Buddha images and pagodas are not actually painted with golden paint. You may actually have found people sticking something on Buddha images and wondered what they were doing. What they stick are gold leaves on the images and it is kind of a tradition. It is believed that one will have good Karma if they offer gold leaves to the pagoda or statues of Buddha. This religious tradition has long existed, since the country was under the monarch rule.
But if you wandered how and where these gold leaves are produce, you should head to Mandalay. In this city there is what you could call a gold leaf industry, and more specifically in an area called Myat Pa Ya. When you visit Myat Pa Ya in Mandalay, you will find series of cottages where many people, men and women alike, are working to produce gold leaves. It has even become sort of a tourist attraction, as visitors are curious about how these gold leaves that covers so many religious sites and images are produced.
Making a gold leaf needs hard work. Before arriving in Myat Pa Ya, you can already hear from distance the rhythmic sounds of gold pounding. At those workshops, you will see strong men taking care of the hammering in the production process. They are usually the ones beating the gold, while women work is to cut and pack the finished gold leaf products. An approximate weight of 15 pounds (6.8 kg) hammer is used to produce the thin gold chips. At the first stage, 2 ounces (57 grams) of gold is made into 20 feet long (0.61 meters) and 0.75 inches (1.9 centimeter) wide gold chip. It is then cut into 5 feet chips and then cut again into 200 pieces. Each piece is placed between two bamboo papers, all these 200 pieces are then attached together and hammered for 30 minutes.
Secondly, every gold chip is cut into six pieces again and hammered for another 30 minutes. Now, from 2 ounces of gold, we already get a total of 1200 pieces of gold chips. In a third step, the gold foils are moved to bigger bamboo papers and pounded again for 5 more hours. Interesting thing is that to calculate the pounding time, they use the traditional coconut timer that sinks into the water every 3 minutes. Finally, after that step, the gold chips have turned into extra thin leaves. They are then cut into 2 inches (5.1 centimeters) square and put between new pieces of paper. The final process of cutting and packing the gold leaves is a women’s work, as it requires dexterity and a soft touch.
But making gold leaves, is not only a matter of pounding and cutting, it needs strength, skills and know-how. A gold leaf maker must be aware of the weather. The hotter it gets, the more the gold will expand. And if the pounder doesn’t pay much attention on how he pounds, it can lead to overheat the gold, which will then melt, going back to phase one of the process. These handcrafted gold leaves are unique in quality, and it is really worth to visit one of those workshops, to witness one of the rare traditional works. Indeed, there are also machine-made gold leaves today, but the quality in incomparable. The handmade gold leaves always have the best quality, thus are more expensive. It is more of a culture than a business; a value that comes out of perseverance and sweat.