MYANMAR : Goldsmith of Mandalay
The Goldsmiths of Mandalay
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Over 200 years on and gold is still panned in the rivers north of Yangon, Myanmar’s bustling capital city.
The nuggets soon become wafer thin sheets of gold, crafted by the hands of goldsmiths in the Myet Pa area of the city, which adorn the countless Buddhas in the region’s temples and pagodas.
ERIC PASQUIER captures this unique craft on camera.
North of Yangon – Myanmar’s capital and largest city – a very special tradition has been kept alive for the past 200 years: the precious gold that is panned in the rivers here is used to adorn the countless Buddhas of local temples and pagodas.
Starting out as irregular spheres, the gold nuggets are transformed little by little, ever so carefully, into delicate gold leaf by the goldsmiths of Mandalay.
Even though they work the gold furnished primarily by monasteries, these unique artisans of Myanmar make it possible for the poor to express their
religious devotion through offerings to the venerated Buddha and the feared “Nats” – protector of spirits in Burmese religious folklore. It’s a portrait of a people for whom all that glitters is the golden way of Buddha.
Mandalay: The Story of the “Golden Land”
It’s dawn over the Irrawaddy River. Some 60km north of Mandalay, 100 men have set off from the little city of Kyaukmyaung, and walk the length of the dried-out river bed. Their destination: the “golden” sites where the precious metal is extracted.
The prospectors come equipped with shovels and sifters.
They dig fervently into the soil on the river’s banks in search of gold. It’s intense physical labour but the effort is expended for one purpose - appeasing the great Buddha.
No one will say how much income they earn.
But it’s known that for these miners, a hard day’s work yields an average of around half-a-gram of impure gold, which they sell on the local market for about 500 kyats ($5). But little do they care of what they earn. They consider themselves in
the employ of Buddha, working to placate him and the Nats (protector, Lord): one of a general class of spirits in Myanmar folklore.
Their work is a labour of love, a spiritual endeavour that transcends any notion of material gain.
After gold is extracted from the earth it’s brought to Mandalay and refined by goldsmiths, whose workshops are concentrated in the city’s “Myet Pa” - literally meaning delicate gold leaf - area. The small boutiques, often owned and operated by Chinese families, are lined up next to one another, running the entire length of the street.
A Fastidious, Ancient Method
Beneath the bamboo awning of the goldsmith’s atelier, the repetitious, rhythmic dull sound of gold being hammered, over and over, can be heard. As early as 6 am the work begins. It will continue until 2 pm, when the heat becomes too much to bear.
The hammering technique practised in Myanmar dates back to the 18th century when the King of Burma “imported” specialised artisans from Ayuthaya - the former capital of Thailand.
Ever since, the goldsmiths of Mandalay have carried on working in the traditional manner. To this day, nothing has changed. The distribution of labour is the same as it ever was, with each person assigned a specific task. They include: the “gold washers” (who sell their 22-carat gold to the bonzes of the monasteries); the “hammerers” who work the gold to the specifications ordered by the monks; the women who cut the leaves into various shapes; the women responsible for placing the leaves on flat squares of rice paper and, finally, the women who take care of putting the finished product into something saleable.
Still, before the yellow, malleable metal is ready to appear on Buddha statues, a fair amount of work needs to be done. First, the gold is placed between thin, delicate bamboo leaves, which are dried and aged in a special cellar, to make them firm enough to be re-used 70 times, until a package of 100 leaves is meticulously prepared. The package is then wrapped in a protective layer of stag-skin – to prevent thermal damage. Placed on a small granite anvil, the bundle is then hammered for hours on end.
Both sides of bundles are pounded. The goldsmith uses a rudimentary sort of hourglass hanging next to his workbench: a coconut shell cut in half, pierced at the bottom with a tiny hole, then suspended and filled with water. Perhaps the method is not as accurate as a Rolex, it does nonetheless, get the job done. After three minutes, the water drains out of the shell, signalling the goldsmith to turn his bundle over.
It’s hard to believe, but the goldsmith uses his ears to determine when the work is done. He knows the perfect thickness and uniformity of the leaves has been obtained when he hears the precise sound made by his hammer against the leaves. To avoid deformities of any kind, each 3.5-kilogram hammer is appointed with a rosewood handle.
With a one-gram gold nugget, the goldsmiths can create 75 leaves after working for 24 hours. Every available measure is taken to make each leaf as thin as possible. But how thin? Consider a millimetre much too thick and start thinking in microns. Five sheets of gold leaf, hammered out by the meticulous artisans of Mandalay, stacked on top of each other it’s as thick as an ordinary sheet of paper. Amazing how much toil and sweat goes into producing something so fine, but it’s all for the benefit of the gods.
As light and delicate as butterfly wings, the gold leaves of Mandalay are handled by their creators with surgical precision. The dimensions of the leaves vary anywhere between three and a half to six, or even six and a half centimetres, depending on the buyer’s particular needs. The ancient golden-spired Shwe Dagon Pagoda dominating the Rangoon cityscape always orders 6.2cm sheets of gold leaf, while the Mahamuni Pagoda at Mandalay requires their gold leaf to be in a 5.2cm format. Each bundle contains approximately 1,200 sheets and the goldsmiths of Mandalay produce seven per day, for a daily wage of $5.
At each step of the pounding process, the sheets of gold leaf are cut into six, up until final packaging. The cutting is done on custom-made, totally non-porous, lacquered tables that prevent the escape of the artisan’s precious raw material.
Once the gold leaf is finished, the women take over and complete the production process. They gather around the workbench, using special tools made out of buffalo-horn, powdering their fingers before cutting the leaves, which have a tendency to cling to whatever they come into contact with. With meticulous care and attention to detail, they paint the gold leaf onto rice paper. The final product is prepared in little-coloured packets of different sizes containing 100 sheets of gold leaf and at a price of 13,000 kyats ($13), it’s a veritable king’s ransom for typical Burmese low-wage labourers. These austere shops use an Indian system of measurement called the “Tical” and every month, 3,000 Ticals are produced, a total of 30,000 gold leaves. One Tical equals 24,000 kyats ($24).
A Buddhist Fervour that Explains It All
But faith knows no bounds, and the most prestigious pagoda guardians will often make sure that they have a gold leaf on their forehead when they eventually go to their grave. Others cover the Buddhas in black “Thitsay” resin to ensure that the gold leaf sticks to the venerated icon. True Burmese come to pray before the altars of the richly decorated Buddha’s throne and, before leaving, press a gold leaf against their idol. Like a candle that’s lit in a Christian church, their gold leaf is accompanied by a wish, a vow or a prayer.
The Nats are also honoured by the offerings of the faithful. Burmese people are highly superstitious. Indeed, they fear the Nats as much as they venerate Buddha and do everything possible to prevent the wrath of the heavens. Thus the Buddha of Mahamuni has a face covered in no less than 20cm of gold leaf and is honoured with offerings of up to 4.5kg every month.
Respect and worship of Buddha are limitless. Buddha statues are not just symbolic representations but rather treated like living, breathing human beings. The “waking ritual” is performed every morning: a monk brushes the Buddha’s teeth, fans and perfumes him. Later in the day, he is covered in gilded garments. The diamonds adorning his forehead, it is said, are worth several millions of dollars. In Rangoon, the roof of the magnificent golden-spired Shwe Dagon Pagoda is weighted down with 60 tons of gold leaf.
In this appropriately dubbed “Golden Land”, enormous wealth is displayed for all to see, the gilded offerings of a people desperately impoverished. In Myanmar, one can marvel at the shocking contrast between the fantastically adorned pagodas and temples, and the humble dwellings of a people whose extraordinary spiritual belief is as incredible, subtle and delicate as… a sheet of gold leaf.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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