One thing that stands out while traveling in Myanmar is how many sacred Buddha images and pagodas are gilded in shiny gold leaves – and, yes, it’s real gold! The most prominent of these shimmering relics is Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon cloaked in an unfathomable amount of tiny sheets of gold. It’s safe to say that the Burmese have a penchant for gold! But where does it all come from?
Well, first of all, you need to head to Mandalay. The gold pounders’ district, Myat Pa Ya, stretches out over two blocks where specialty workshops abound. Even before entering a workshop, the rhythmic hammering can be heard far out in the streets. In the forefront of these workshops are men laboriously pounding every inch of these gold leaves for hours on end. The work is extremely strenuous and physical. Using a heavy mallet weighing several kilograms and bent over at a back-breaking 90-degree angle, the barefoot male workers dressed in their traditional longyi continuously slam down hard on small packets tied to stone slabs.
Mounds of gold weighing a few grams are carefully placed in a bundle in between bamboo paper to then be flattened into almost weightless sheets. Bang, bang, bang. The newly-formed sheets are removed, placed once more in the bundle and the whole process starts again to create even more sheets. The workers meticulously and relentlessly hammer down on the stone slab for up to 8 hours each day to achieve the gilded perfection of about four hundred tiny square sheets of gold.
The days in the workshop are stretched out from early in the morning to late at night and their wages are thin – as thin as the precious sheets they pound. The workers are paid according to how many bundles they hand over at the end of their shift – so work hard they must. There’s no ventilation in these rudimentary workshops so the heat can be stifling. The work span of these laborers is more often than not cut short due to inevitable, and irreversible, back problems which, in contrast, last a lifetime.
It’s hard to believe that nearly all the gold leaves sold in Myanmar originate from this compact yet highly productive district – but they do! Hundreds of thousands of sheets are produced, manually and painstakingly, to then be sold to devotees who piously place them on sacred images and religious icons as a show of respect. Some of the gold leaves are used in beauty products while others are eaten (gold apparently has some positive health benefits)!
Read all about my travels in Myanmar
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Have you been to the gold pounders’ district in Mandalay?