yanmar, known as the "Golden Land," is noted for its golden shrines and  gilded pagodas throughout Myanmar, which may be called the country of gilded means covered with gold leaf pagodas and temples. You will see almost all the pagodas and temples are colored with golden color or gilding with gold leaf which is related to traditional religious belief. There are  many historical and legendary stories of using tons of gold to offer to Buddha or ancient tradition to use for religious purposes since long ago. We even heard many word – of – mouth stories of Buddha era and its people's marvelous offering to Buddha including solid golds since we were young by the Buddha stories or history. 

Offering gold leaf to Golden Rock by a monk

Tradition of Gold Leaf

It is said that Buddha was the person who is the only and the great one who enlightens many lives and knowledge. So, people offer  expensive things, to demonstrate our appreciation to the one who we admire with tremendous respect. So, as an  expensive metal and human accessory, gold is  one of the famous and mostly used objects we offer to Buddha. As time passed, the tradition was inherited one generation by one generation. But like everyone knows, gold is an expensive metal. People started to wonder how it became more affordable to offer gold even for standard economic walks of life, so more people were able to do gold offers. In the18th Century, an expert called Sayar Mon invented gold leaf making by beating hammers with detailed techniques.

Offering gold leaf at Paung Daw Oo Pagoda by visitors

Gold Leaf in Myanmar

Being a country which has various handicrafts and arts which are famous for its single process, gold leaf stands as one of the well-known and time-consuming handicrafts . Gold leaf is a type of metal leaf, thin sheets of real gold. It is also called gold foil or gold leafing. Gold leaf handicraft is a very time consuming one to make. It contains  many steps and skills. In Myanmar, gold leaf or gold leafing is mostly used in arts and crafts for gilding. But nowadays, we can see gold leaf in paintings, beauty products, health care products, and in the kitchen especially in bakery items rather than the religious tradition. It is said that the best quality gold leaf is 0.00001 mm with the condition of whisper thin. That's why making whisper thin gold leaf takes much time and costs much physical effort in every single detail. Actually, the words "whisper thin" is the tradition of usage to obviously see how thinner the gold leafing is than other states that it will be floated in air even by our whisper or our talks. And it will be the best quality of gold leaf only when it has such a thin form of texture or condition.

Offering whisper thin gold leaf to Buddha Image
Offering  whisper thin gold leaf to Buddha Image

Famous Gilding Pagodas in Myanmar 

Gilding through Myanmar’s pagodas and temples, you can't help but be impressed by the intricate designs and stunning architecture. Some famous gilding pagodas around Myanmar are Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon, Mahar Muni Buddha Image in Mandalay, Kyite Htee Yoe so called Golden Rock Pagoda in Mon, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda in Inle. The original shape of those Buddha Images is gradually disappearing because of heavy gold gilding by thousands of people every day.

Among these pagodas, apart from Shwe Dagon Pagoda, if you are a boy or a man, you can offer and personally rub the Buddha Image with gold leaf. Because in Myanmar tradition, women or girls are not allowed to personally rub the Buddha Image and later generations think this tradition should evolve sooner or later. 

Gilded Golden Rock in Mon State
Gilded Se Htet Gyi Pagoda in Bago Division

Where can you find and purchase gold leaf? 

In Myanmar, the first place where you can find ready made gold leaf are the shops inside or outside of the gold leaf allowed pagodas such as Maha Muni Buddha Image, Aung Taw Mu pagoda, Kyite Htee Yoe or the golden rock, Phaung Daw Oo pagoda and most regional pagodas or temples. Normally, it costs around 4000 Myanmar Kyats (about 2-3 dollar) per package which contains 4 gold sheets measured in 1in square. 

If you want to see the time-consuming and physically exhausting gold leaf making, then go to the one and only quarter in the world where amazing gold leaf is made. To go there, plan your trip to Mandalay, the second largest city, the last kingdom of Myanmar and the city of Myanmar tradition.  Mandalay is the only city where Gold leaves are made and is famous for its detailed gold leaf making by hand and gold leaf arts. In Mandalay, you can go to the quarter called Myat Parr Quarter,  the location is between 36th and 37th street and 77th and 78th street. One famous gold leaf shop I can recommend is the King Galon Gold leaf Workshop.

The steps of making or beating gold leaf

The very first step is the preparing stage, where 12 grams of 24 karat pure gold is heated by an air blow stove. In tradition, it is mostly used charcoal in heating the gold to become soft after which it will be beaten by small hammers to get a gold rod. Then the gold rod is flattened by a rolling machine about 20-25 times till the gold rod becomes a 5 feet long gold ribbon. When rolling, they have to use some oil, so the gold  doesn’t get sticky on the rolling machine. In most cases, they use coconut oil. Then the 5' long gold ribbon is cut into 200 equal pieces, generally about a thumb-nail  size or a tamarind leaf size. Every single small piece is put between a heap of bamboo-made paper and straw paper layer by layer. After that, all 200 pieces of gold sheets are packaged by deer leather skin which is more resistant for beating and producing thinner layers.

For the beating steps, the prepared package is beaten by a 3kg (6.6 lb) weight hammer on hard stone to become extended by using a backward and forward beating system. After half an hour of beating, the extended gold flakes are cut again into 6 small pieces. After getting 1200 small flakes, each sheet is put again into one layer by layer between bamboo made paper. Then the same process like in  1st stage – takes place, putting the leaves on hard stone and beating them for another 30 minutes. During these beating steps, they use a round beating system, to make the leaves  round, which is  different from 1st step's backward and forward beating system.

After the second half an hour beating, the enlarged and round gold flakes are transferred to the bigger bamboo paper with a  size of  around 6*6inches. Then they are packed by deer skin leather and ready to be beaten again. Here, the beating duration turns to about 4-5 hours by two teams of beaters with each team changing over every one hour. This step is not only the final stage but also the most important stage.

In this stage they have the tradition of using locally made or workshop made water clock or clepsydra which is made of a water basin, halved coconut shell with a  tiny hole at its bottom where water leaks in and bamboo stick to attach and tie the coconut shell. In the timing stage, water has to fill up into the shell and sink into water and normally it takes 2-3 minutes or 120 beats. Whenever 3 cups sink into the water basin, the beaters stop and prepare the package and change the beating system. It is said that the first 3 cups beatings are  to heat the package to get soft gold flakes, the second 3 cups beatings are to extend the gold and the third 3 cups beatings are not to stick on the paper. It usually takes an hour to have the cup sink into water 18 times. In this way, the gold flakes are beaten for 4 – 5 hours by changing the beaters team hourly.

Enlarging to bigger size by beating the small piece
Cutting into 6 pieces for next step’s beating

The period of final stage overall beating time 4-5 hours depends on the weather and temperature of the working place. After 5 hours of beating, the whisper thin gold flakes are cut into the  required form and size according to market style and demand then branded with the workshop name. In the market, we can see not only gold leaf but also other metal leaf like silver, copper and so on.

These workshops offer an excursion tour to learn all of these processes, tradition of these handicrafts and buy the gold leaf. But currently, all of these workshops are closed because of the Covid and the current political situation. 

One of the steps of making gold leaf
The size and the power used in packing

Things to know about the accessories and the beating

According to older tradition, the usage of bamboo paper is to get good resistance for beating and for straw paper, keeping the gold flakes warm between  the deer skin leather is the most  effective in beating because it is thinner and more resistant. While branding, they use buffalo horn and talcum powder not to get stuck in packages. While beating, beaters use different beating techniques such as cross-beating, clockwise beating, anti-clockwise beating, round beating, corner beating, backward and forward beating and so on and they have to beat regularly and do it carefully so as not to get smashed gold flakes.

Locally made of workshop made water clock or clepsydra
Step by step condition of gold leaf

The Beaters 

The beaters have to be boys or young men with good strength and stamina. While beating, the beaters change the beating techniques by touching the gold flakes package with skin. Besides, beaters need to have good listening skills and beating skills because they can estimate the condition of the gold flakes by listening to the beating sound and the more they get experienced, the better their listening skills for the qualified gold flakes. They have to practice their beating skills step by step and it is also said that overall practice takes at least 9 months to become a  professional beater. 

Conclusion and social value

Because of its culture, tradition and social values, the increased market demand has improved the social value of arts and the gold leaf making industry and other similar handcrafted industries. It not only creates its own value and benefits but also inherits the intangible ritual and amazing tradition. Visiting and participating in this kind of handcrafted industry supports both the society and the employment of the local dwellers.

October 13, 2022