This sculpture is a replica of the Svayambhu Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, which is regarded by the Buddhists of Nepal as the center of the cosmos. As such, it constitutes the very location where creation initially took place. Accordingly, the stupa is replete with symbols of genesis. Its central feature is its dome, called an anda or egg in reference to its perceived generative capacity. Just beneath it are two rows of lotus petals. Since lotus flowers seemingly emerge by themselves from the bodies of water in which they grow, the lotus is a symbol of creation in many Asian cultures. Below the lotus is a square, stair-stepped feature pinched at its waist like an hourglass. This feature is the symbolic form of the central mountain of the cosmos, called Mount Meru. Viewed from above, another set of imagery associated with the center of creation can be discerned: it is the pattern of nested squares and circles called a mandala. The visual lesson is clear and simple: the place of origin lies at the center of the cosmos.
In Buddhist thought, the same generative power embodied by the Svayambhu Stupa can be accessed by replicating the original. But there is a practical problem: in the physical world replicas of the creative center of the cosmos will decay over time. Such replicas must therefore be reconsecrated at intervals in order for the symbolism they employ to remain active.
For the Svayambhu Stupa in Kathmandu, such reconsecration involves a critical but dangerous step: it must be regilded with a technique using fire and mercury. In such fire gilding, which you can see in the accompanying video, mercury is heated to 675 degrees Fahrenheit, and then finely ground gold is added to it. When the very poisonous mercury begins to smoke, the gold can be pushed through a sieve to create a butter-like amalgam. The amalgam is then applied to the surface of the object to be gilded. This Svayambhu replica was gilded using this technique.
(Label from Exhibition Hidden Gold: Mining Its Meaning in Asian Art)