Young men take pride in carrying on tradition of gold pounding, even though it ruins their health.
Drops of sweat glisten on Thant Myint Ti's forehead as he heaves a giant hammer and pounds it down. His muscles flex under the strain. He has already been working for five hours today pounding gold in Mandalay.
"It is really back-breaking work. It takes a lot of muscle power," he explains, leaning back, exhausted. Thant Myint Ti has been a gold pounder for 15 years. The rhythmic, monotonous pounding can be heard in front of the shop and echoes throughout the neighborhood of Myat Par Yat.
There are around 50 traditional family businesses that produce fine leaf gold. They range from smaller operations to larger companies, like Cho Soe Win's, which was founded by her grandfather and has been in her family now for over 100 years.
Now nearly 100 people work for Cho Soe Win. In the shop the gold pounders stand closely together - bare-chested, lean, muscular bodies slightly bent over, slowly pounding out gold wrapped in bamboo paper and deerskin with three-kilogram (seven-pound) hammers.
"First, the men pound the gold for a half hour, then for an hour and then for five hours on end," Cho Soe Win explains. The methods used to produce gold leaf have hardly changed throughout the centuries. Today, machines can only be used for a few processes. One gram of gold makes 200 thin leaves of gold that are one-thousandth of a millimeter thick - thinner than a stroke of ink on a piece of paper.
A traditional water clock tells the men when to rotate duties. It consists of a coconut shell in a pot of water. The shell has a small hole in it and when it fills up with water and sinks, one hour is up. After an hour of monotonous hammering, they get a 15-minute break.
Retired at 45
Thant Myint Ti sits in the sun in front of the shop chewing on a beetle nut. His teeth are stained red from the nuts, but they help him to relax, he says. The 31-year-old has chronic back pain. "The back suffers the most from this job. In the evening, I use traditional medicine to treat the pain," he explains.
Most men start working as gold pounders at the age of 16, after six months of training. After around 10 years of work, most gold pounders get bad backs. Forty-five is the usual cut-off age, after which the body can take no more. "But there is one 60-year-old who still works with us," Thant Myint Ti says.
While the men do the back-breaking pounding, women carry out the second step in the production process. They sit in a wind-protected room around short tables and cut the fine leaves of gold.
"It has to be completely protected from wind, otherwise the gold would blow away or get damaged," Cho Soe Win explains. The drone of the pounding in the background mixes with chattering as the women talk amongst themselves while carefully working on the gold. On the wall, there is a poster of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who watches over their work.
Than Myint Ti gets up and re-ties his longyi, a traditional Burmese garment he is wearing around his waist, and goes back to work. "If I had a son," he says, reaching for his hammer, "I would not want him to become a gold pounder. It is hard work and it is not good for the body or spirit."
On the other hand, the job is well paid. The high season is winter. That is when the companies get the most orders. Thant Myint Ti and his colleagues can earn up to 5,000 kyat – slightly less than 5 euros - per day. On average, the daily cost of living in Mandalay is about one euro. Myanmar's average monthly wages are among the lowest in Southeast Asia. Thant Myint Ti is proud of his work - it is a trade that is held in high esteem in the country. The work is even said to be healthy. "The healers say the consumption of gold is good for preventing heart disease. So eating leaf gold is good for the heart," Cho Soe Win explains. People enjoy gold with bananas or honey.
But the leaf gold is mainly used in Buddhist temples and pagodas. Mandalay's Mahamuni Pagoda is a prime example. The fine gold is in high demand at the pagoda; depending on size, it runs from 300 to 700 kyat - from 30 to 70 euro cents. Hundreds of Buddhists travel to the pagoda daily and kneel before the giant golden statue of Buddha to pray. Men approach the statue and paste on fine leaves of gold. Throughout the decades so much gold has been pasted on to the statue that in certain spots it is 35 centimeters thicker. A giant golden Buddha - pounded out and re-formed by the gold pounders of Mandalay.
Author: Monika Griebeler / sb
Editor: Simon Bone