Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Mandalay - crafting gold, marble and wood

For part two of the grand tour of Mandalay, I will focus on the crafts that we saw being done. The first of these was making gold leaf, which you will know from the last posting, is likely to end up on a Buddha image. Most places these days use machines to hammer out the gold leaf, but here they do it the old fashioned way.

Before they even start on the gold leaf, they have to make the bamboo paper, which is a very strong waxy paper that they use to separate the sheets of gold leaf. After stripping down and splitting the bamboo into small sticks, they then have to soak it in lime for three years - no, that isn't a mistake, it takes three years to break down.

It then gets broken down to fibres and then pulped. The pulp is then spread over a mesh tray to form a thin film, which is left to dry out to make the paper. The paper is cut into 4.5" and 6" squares, each of which has to be placed on a brass plate and then beaten with sticks for thirty minutes until it get the required waxy finish.

Compared to the bamboo paper, the gold leaf process is quick, but it is much harder work. The gold is measured in ticals, which are 16.3 grams.  The molten gold is passed through an extruder to create a thin ribbon of metal.  That ribbon is cut into 1" squares, 200 of which are stacked, separated by 4.5" square sheets of bamboo paper, and bound into a small leather wrapped package.

That package is pounded with a large sledgehammer for about 30 minutes, until each piece of gold has spread to about six times its size. These leaves are then cut into six pieces, and all of the layers are restacked, and beaten for another 30 minutes. The gold leaf is now restacked in 6" square bamboo paper and the bundle beaten for a further 5 hours.

Three men share the hammering, to keep a constant speed and rhythm going, as it is important that the gold leaf keeps the right temperature so that it will spread well.  To ensure the thickness is even, there is a strict regime of altering where the hammer hits the package; the number of hits is timed using a coconut shell with a hole drilled in it, which will sink in just over three minutes, during which time they will hit the package 120 times.

The cutting and packaging is done by women in a separate room, where they take care to ensure that there are no drafts to waft away the ultra thin gold leaf. The final product is sold in various sizes and amounts, and used for lacquerware as well as on the religious buildings and images. At the end of our visit, we ladies were all anointed with a small piece of gold leaf on our foreheads.

 The next craft was the somewhat disturbing stonemasonry, where whole families turn lumps of marble into intricately carved Buddha images. I say disturbing because we were all quite horrified to see everyone working with no face masks. Even just walking past, we could taste the stone dust and feel ourselves breathing it, so it must be doing terrible things to their respiratory systems. The guys doing the carving were covered in white dust, and every so often they would hack up a load of gunk.

Health and safety aside, it was quite fascinating to see the amazing work that they do here.  The carving of some of the statues was incredibly detailed and quite beautiful.  It was slightly strange to see many of the Buddhas with no faces though; apparently it is only the master stoneworkers who are permitted to carve the face of Buddha, so someone else does the rest and in the meantime it leaves these faceless bodies.

Once the men and older boys have done the carving, it is over to the women and girls to polish up the stone.  The whole process seems pretty slick, and the finished products are sold on to temples and businesses to be adored - and possibly garnished with gold leaf!

Our final craft destination for today was the wood carvers. Unsurprisingly they were making Buddha images too, but they were doing other things as well; elephants featured quite strongly here.  There were some really lovely pieces, and we were quite tempted by a large pair of panels with lotus on them, but they were a bit too pricey.

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