Myth Monday: How the Sacred Birman Cat Was Created (Burmese Legend)
By Kara Newcastle
In Khmer, animals were precious. Some outside the empire would look at an animal and just see an animal, but the Khmer people knew that human souls could be reincarnated into animals, where they would await their final departure into the afterlife. Each human had an animal scared to their station, and cats had the special honor of carrying the souls of priests and kings.
Sorrowfully, the Khmer empire was not always at peace. Strife from without and within could ravage the land at any time, and it was during one of these wars that the priests found themselves fleeing deep into the mountains of northern Burma. Once they were sure they were safe, the priests constructed an astonishing temple Lao-Tsun, dedicated to their gods Song Ho and his wife, the blue-eyed goddess Tsun Kyankse. There, the priests were able to worship and study in peace, caring for the one hundred temple cats and any creature or person they found in need.
The chief priest was Mun-Ha, and none could compare to him in his piety, and in his devotion to Tsun Kyankse, who oversaw the reincarnation of souls. He was such a generous and kind man that the goddess blessed him with a beard of gold, so all who saw him would see how good and pure he was. Always at his side was Sinh, the cat. Sinh had eyes as yellow as the chief priest’s golden beard, and his body was covered in long, soft fur the color of earth. Sinh devotedly followed Mu-Ha everywhere he went, purring and chirping to him and no one else.
The priests and their cats lived in peace for only a short while; the horrible night came when their enemies discovered the new temple hidden in the mountains and attacked it with the rage of a thousand demons. In the chaos of the massacre, Mun-Ha was found slumped on the floor, dead. Wide-eyed Sinh was huddled beside him, at times laying back his ears and hissing at the murderers when they came too close.
Upon seeing the body of their cherished abbot, the other priests despaired; how could this have happened? They worked so hard to stay hidden, they dedicated every moment of their lives to worshipping the gods and caring for weak, doing all that was required of them, and now they were all to die? Not even the virtuous Mun-Ha had been spared!
As if sensing the priests’ anguish, Sinh suddenly stood. Looking down at his fallen master, Sinh lifted one front paw, then the other, placing each of his four feet gently down on the dead Mun-Ha’s forehead.
As the confused priests watched, a golden light seemed to burn from deep within Sinh’s chest. It flared out like a roar of flame, swirling around the cat’s body. As the light passed over him, Sinh’s fur changed from earthen brown to glowing gold. His eyes, once a burning yellow, shown with the same blue shade of the goddess Tsun Kyankse. Each of Sinh’s paws turned snow white.
Blinking his incredible blue eyes once, Sinh turned and gazed at the temple entrance.
All the priests understood immediately; they had witnessed a miracle. Mun-Ha’s soul had passed into Sinh’s body, and the goddess Tsun Kyankse was now watching over them. Knowing that they had not been forsaken, the priests rallied and fought back, driving their stunned attackers back and barricading the doors. Unable to breach the temple a second time, their enemies gave up and returned home.
For six days Sinh did not eat nor drink. He only sat before the statue of the goddess, staring at her. On the morning of the seventh day, the beautifully transformed Sinh quietly passed away, and the priests knew that Mun-Ha had passed on into paradise.
With Mun-Ha gone, the priests knew they need to select a new leader. After seven days of discussion, they came together to make the final decision. Before anyone could suggest a candidate, a pattering of hundreds of paws filled the air. The priests looked down in amazement as the 99 remaining temple cats flooded the room—and each and every one had been transformed the way Sinh had, with golden fur, blue eyes, and white paws. Seeing this as a sign from Tsun Kyankse, the priests bowed to the cats and waited quietly as the felines all trotted up to one young priest named Legoa, forming a circle around him. Thus, the new chief priest was chosen.
It was from these cats that the Sacred Cat of Burma—known as the Birman to world—was created.