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The Pounding of the Centuries in Burma


© St. Petersburg Times

Down an alley lined with weathered teak shacks we follow the rhythmic "poo, puck! poo, puck!" of metal mallets striking leather. We are well off the tourist path, somewhere southwest of Mandalay Hill, down toward the venerated Maha Muni Temple. Even Thon, our Burmese guide and van driver, had to ask half a dozen times for directions to the gold pounders.

All over Burma we have seen images of Buddha gleaming with gold leaf. Particularly revered Buddha statues often take on the appearance of immense gold nuggets, the Buddha unrecognizable under a centuries-thick mantle of pure gold.

Buddhists place gold leaf sold by temple attendants onto a Buddha image as a way of gaining "merit," a means of correcting one's karma (the concept of cause and effect that transcends individual lifetimes). Believing in reincarnation, Buddhists see all things as interconnected: A little kitten or a spring butterfly, for instance, could have once -- eons ago -- been your mother. All creatures, therefore, are treated with respect and generosity.

Gold pressed onto the temple statues symbolizes this generosity ("The Buddha likes gold," we are told), and gains merit not only for the giver but for the community.

In Burma, even pagodas and stupas often shine with gold. The Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, 336 feet high, is said to be 7 inches thick in places with gold and gold leaf. After each monsoon season, great bamboo scaffolds are erected and the surface is regilded to replace the gold washed away. The Burmese have been doing this for centuries, and for centuries the gold pounders have supplied all that precious glitter in exactly the same way as they do today.

"Poo, puck! Poo, puck! ... " The three men sitting on the bench outside the tiny gold leaf shop look surprised when we walk up the alley. Thon tells them we have only come to watch, and soon our presence is accepted in good Burmese humor.

We lean inside the doorway. There is hardly room for the two men to swing their mallets inside the stifling room. A third man sits and rests. The tropic breeze cannot reach this far down the alley, and only rippling heat passes through the teak lattice windows.

The floor is of packed earth, the front half covered by a bamboo mat. A man wearing a neat white shirt sits here, who, like the others, is wearing the traditional Burmese longyi -- a single wrap of cotton cloth tucked in at the waist, worn by both men and women.

Tally book, small safe, chisel, cutters and a gold scale surround him. He faces the gold pounders, who are shirtless, their lean muscles glistening with sweat. They stand barefoot astride stone anvils angled deep into the dirt floor.

With the concentration of an archer drawing his bow, each man slowly lifts his mallet overhead and lets it fall. The iron mallets strike thick leather packets braced on the worn stones. They maintain a slow, steady rhythm, every stroke evenly matched in force to the last.

As we peer in, the third man sits on his stone, flipping the pages of his thick leather packet. Between the pages flicker sheets of gold, each about as big around as a silver dollar and already much thinner than foil.

Near his bare feet sits a clay bowl of water with a half-submerged coconut shell cup. The cup contains a stone and a small hole. It is sinking slowly.

The man replaces the leather packet of gold and, as the shell sinks, takes up the rhythm once again. A helper resets the water timer. It is like a fascinating glimpse back in time. The steamy shop might be a museum diorama titled: "Gold pounders. Mandalay. Circa 18th century." A coconut cup clock?

"The coconut sinks in exactly three minutes," the voice behind me volunteers in perfect English. Sai Wanna is one of the men sitting on the bench in the alley. Like some closet alchemist, he is bursting with arcane information.

"There are exactly 120 strokes to those three minutes. After each coconut, the men rest one or two minutes, and then continue. After three coconut cups, they turn the gold leaf packet over. Eighteen coconuts make one pounding hour. ... "

Wanna tells us that it takes five such hours of mind-numbing tedium to flatten a chip of gold weighing about a hundredth of a gram into leaf. As I watch the mallets fall, I wonder how much labor it would take to pound a person's weight into gold leaf. Since the 15th century, Burmese rulers have gained merit by having their weight in gold leaf (or several times that) applied to the Schwedagon.

"The gold is placed between two pieces of bamboo paper, one waxed and the other not. There are 1,500 pages to a leather packet, holding 750 chips of gold. That makes 12 grams altogether."

I try to keep up with all this, wondering if his math is correct. Meanwhile, the men pound away. I am thirsty, stiff and sore just watching them. I hope they earn a decent wage swinging that "7-pound hammer with a 2-pound handle" -- but, of course, they do not.

Wanna says the shop sells the gold leaf to the temple for 75 kyat (about 75 cents) for a packet of 10. All that labor amounts to a few pennies of profit.

Later, we visit the Maha Muni Temple (also called the Payagyi Pagoda), the most revered site in Mandalay. The famous image within sits 12 feet 7 inches high and is said to be the exact likeness of the Buddha. Legend tells of Saka, "King of Gods," sculpting the Buddha while he sat in meditation. The statue was brought to this site in the 18th century.

Golf leaf pressed upon the image is now so thick that its features are distorted. Temple attendants do a brisk business selling packets of gold leaf outside.

We buy two packets of five sheets for 60 kyat. Maria, more Buddhist than I am, presses her leaves of gold (the temple supplies the glue) onto a massive dimpled knee.

I slip mine into my vest pocket for safekeeping. That's 90 coconut cups of labor -- 10,800 strokes. If you go

Ninety-nine percent of all tourists enter Burma (called Myanmar by the present regime) via Bangkok. Thai and Myanmar both have round-trip flights for about $220. Myanmar Air has internal flights to Mandalay.

Rental cars are not available to foreigners, so many visitors find hired vans convenient for touring the country. These are easily hired in Rangoon; ask at your hotel. Rates are negotiable, but expect to pay $600 to $900 for two weeks with a driver. The drive to Mandalay is a scenic day and a half.

Foreigners must stay in government-certified hotels (where available). Mandalay has 32 such hotels. Two good choices are the Silver Cloud, #57, 73 Road and 29 Street, $20-$40; and the Ayer Hotel, 26 Road and 81 Street, $15-$35.

The Burmese money situation: The FEC is the tourist currency, rated the same as the U.S. dollar. You are expected to buy $300 worth of FECs upon arrival at the airport. FECs must be used for travel tickets and government hotels.

The kyat ("chat"), however, is the common currency, used for restaurants, souvenirs, etc. You will constantly get offers to change dollars. Your van driver is a good source.

For further information, contact the Embassy of Myanmar (Burma), 2300 S St. NW, Washington, D.C. 200080; telephone (202) 332-9044. Carl Duncan is a freelance writer who lives in British Columbia.

Originally published October 19, 1997

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