The Golden Touch – Gold Leaf Beating in Myanmar

Aptly nicknamed ‘The Golden Land’, Burma is known for its countless gold-plated pagodas, shrines and statues. Despite being a developing nation, this precious metal is an indispensable part of Burmese history and culture – and a true testament to the Burmese people’s devotion to Theravada Buddhism.

It’s no coincidence that Myanmar’s three most holy pilgrimage site are shimmering in gold, including the 60 tonnes of gold covering Yangon’s awe-inspiring Shwedagon Pagoda. The other two famous sites allow visitors to apply their own sheets of gold leaf. In Mandalay, Mahamuni Buddha image’s original shape is hidden under a thick 15 cm (6 in) layer of gold leaf, while the 7.3-metre (24 ft) high Golden Rock in Mon State seems to defy gravity as it hangs over the side of a hill (both pictured below).

Whereas the decorative technique of coating solid objects with gold is known as ‘gilding’, ‘goldbeating’ is the process of hammering the raw material into thin sheets for gilding.

Goldbeating in Mandalay

Because gold is the most malleable and ductile of all metals, it can easily be stretched, rolled or hammered into razor-thin proportions. A single ounce (28g) of solid gold has the capacity to be flattened into a fine layer of 300 sqft (28 sqm) or drawn out into a wire 40 mi (64 km) long!

In Mandalay, Myanmar’s epicentre of goldbeating, the process has remained unchanged over many centuries. A small piece of solid gold is first softened up with fire, then rolled into narrow strips of ribbon through a hand-operated crank. Local women cut the ribbon into small squares and place each piece on a sheet of bamboo paper (making these waxy pages is another laborious 3-year process). 200 layers of gold and paper are stacked together into a bundle, which is then wrapped in deer hide to absorb hours of relentless beating.

The package is handed over to the team of workers who repeatedly pound the gold with their 3 kg (6.6 lb) hammers for half an hour. Because the sheets are of uneven sizes at this stage, they are re-layered, re-bundled and hammered for an additional 30 minutes, followed by a third and final cycle with a laborious 5 hours of beating.

Depending on the size of the leaves, a single 35-gram piece of gold can yield over 2,000 sheets, each just 0.0001 mm (0.000004 in) thick – that’s 7,000 times thinner than an average human hair. Single squares typically range from 2.5 to 5 cm (1 to 2 in) and can be purchased for between 600-2,000 kyat ($0.50 – $1.50 USD) each.

Visit a Goldbeating Workshop on a Heritage Line Luxury Cruise

Experience the cultural and spiritual heart of ancient Burma along the central Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River aboard the extravagant Heritage Line Anawrahta. As we discover the highlights of Mandalay on our 3- and 4-night cruises (Bagan to Mandalay), guests can catch a first-hand glimpse into the fascinating process of goldbeating.

Photo sources:
Goldbeating workshop (hammering and layering): Allan Harris