Gold leaf is one of the most common materials in a Buddhist temple. In addition to statuary and sacred items being layered in gold leaf, it's also used by worshipers. They take tiny squares and carefully apply it to statues and other items as a way of making merit. Some items, like the sacred Buddha images of Inle Lake have had so much gold leaf applied to them that they appear as shapeless blobs. Gold leaf is in demand and this particular Mandalay shop employs a large staff to prepare it.
In the final product, small squares of gold leaf are cut from a larger round piece and carefully places on the yellow paper. The squares are then stacked in a box. A box of twenty-five squares may sell for between fifteen and twenty dollars depending on the price of gold. You're not actually paying for gold so much as the labor that goes into the preparation.
The round pieces of gold have been pounded against sheets of heavy bamboo parchment. Here, the shop's top gold trimmer shows the product as it comes from the gold beaters.
Upstairs, the men go to work on the gold. Numerous squares are sandwiched between layers of parchment and wrapped in sheepskin before being tied against a large stone.
Leaning against a wooden rail, the men begin a rhythmic beating of the packages. Although they each start with their own cadence, they inevitably form a constant beat that is remarkably musical. A small bowl with a hole in the bottom is placed in a jar of water to measure the amount of time the gold is pounded. When the bowl sinks, the men reposition the packages to ensure even distribution.
Each man has his own personal hammer. He usually begins in his teens as a sort of apprentice, spending a few weeks practicing the pounding technique on packages of bamboo sheets without gold. Once the masters are satisfied with his abilities, he is given his first gold to beat. After a few years of this, they are in remarkably good physical condition.
I was granted the opportunity to try my hand at the task, with a dummy package, of course. In bare feet, I positioned myself over the stone. One of the men tied the package and showed me how to strike it. The hammer is understandably heavy, but when I hit the sheepskin-wrapped package, I was pleasantly surprised; the hammer bounced. Instead of having to physically haul the hammer back to the overhead position, I had only to maintain the momentum and start the downward swing. It was like beating a very large drum. I kept up with the rest of the crew for a few minutes until the bowl sank in the jar.
I had the guys gather for a formal portrait. It took several attempts because they could not help laughing.
As I left, I ran into one of the senior gold beaters and had him pose with his hammer. Years of work have carved him into a gold pounding machine with a physique envied by any westerner of his age. As monotenous as the job may be, I can't help but wonder if it might not be a good retirement option: move to Mandalay and get into shape by taking up gold beating.
It beats the hell out of golf, that's for sure.
See more photos here.