Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from Myanmar.
“Look,” says Htet Htet. “Do you see how thin it is?”
Htet, 24, a businesswoman sitting in her sweltering workshop in Mandalay, peers closely at a stamp-size sheet of gold. It is spread on a square of bamboo paper in her palm. The glowing foil ripples when she moves.
How thin is it?
Human skin is about .07 inches thick. The thickness of a sheet of paper is, on average, about .004 inches. By contrast, the hand-made gold leaf made at Htet’s shop measures just .0001 inches thick. Three microns: about 30 times thinner than a human hair. It is like gilded spider webbing. Or barely materialized sunlight.
“We must pound it 20,000 times to make it this thin,” Htet says. “It takes more than five hours of hammering.”
Gold leaf manufacture in Myanmar is many centuries old. It is associated closely with Buddhist ritual. Pasting gold leaf onto statues at pagodas is one way to honor the Buddha’s teachings. Gilding such figures is, according practitioners of Buddhism, “an act of loving kindness” and a path to “transfer good merits.” Gold in Buddhism signifies the sun: a flame of purity, knowledge, enlightenment.
The manufacture of the shining, feathery sheets at Htet’s small studio, the King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop, is strangely beautiful and grueling.
Rows of shirtless young men swing seven-pound hammers at deer-hide satchels containing grains of gold stacked between layers of bamboo paper. They first strike the satchel in a circular pattern to flatten the gold into a coin-shaped disc. Then they smash the center of their targets to achieve maximum thinness. The gold grows hot from the thousands of blows. Time is kept with a clepsydra, an antique clock consisting of a coconut shell with a hole in it floating in a bucket of water. When it sinks every hour, the men take a 15-minute break.
Amid a steady thok-thok-thok of hammers, the coconut fills painfully slowly. It is not a profession for weak backs.
“When you first start, it really hurts,” says Min Min, 33, a veteran gold pounder. “The job requires lots of food—meat, eggs, everything. Also, you can’t listen to the rhythm of the men next to you. It will throw you off. You’ll hurt yourself.”
One mini-ingot the size of a fingernail yields 200 sheets of gold leaf about an inch square. Women in an airless room sealed off from wind—the gold leaf would float away—cut the foil to size using buffalo horn knives.
“Gold leaf also can be eaten. It’s good for the heart,” shop manager Htet says. “Ladies also put it on their faces as a cosmetic.”
Tourists used to buy Htet’s gold leaf as a souvenir. But foreigners are long gone from Mandalay, banished by the coronavirus. During the global pandemic, all of her customers have been traditional: Buddhist pilgrims.
Watching the wiry, sweating men bring their hammers down in the workshop, it is impossible not to ask: How long have we been doing this?
The Vatican drips with gold. The shrine of Al Aqsa, where Mohammed flew to heaven, is domed with gold. Almost every Hindu temple in India has its own gold reserve. (There are more than 4,000 tons of temple gold stashed across India, by one estimate, more than is hoarded in the vaults at Fort Knox.) From the very beginning, we offered gold to exalt our gods and sages, yes, but also as a type of metaphysical collateral: down payment for a pleasant afterlife.
Some of Htet’s gold leaf ends up on the 12-foot-tall, six-ton Buddha statue enshrined in the Mahamuni Temple, Mandalay’s biggest pagoda.
The huge, shimmering, placid image sits encrusted with a lumpy coat of gold leaf that in places is six inches thick. Pilgrims, rich and poor, come and go from the shrine. Fragments of Htet’s product often glitter on their fingers.
Gold leaf is very difficult to remove from living skin.