Thanks to Diana Partington and her Feline Familiars website for the information.
The Temple Cat
by M. Oldfield Howey
This excerpt is from The Cat in
Magic and Myth by Oldfield Howey, published by Dover.Copyright (1930) is
apparently in the public domain. This excerpt tells the mythic history of the
Sacred Cat of Burma. The cat that is purportedly dedicated to the ancient
Goddess of the Transmigration of souls, Tsun-Kyan-Kse. This may be one of the
earliest mentions of this goddess in print. Please refer to the Editor's Note
(follows the article) for more information.
The Sacred Cat of Burma is yet more veiled in obscurity than its supposed descendant,
the Siamese, and we are indebted to Russell Gordon for the only authentic account of this
species that has reached our shores. He gained his information during the Burmese War
of 1885 whilst serving as an officer in the English army occupying Burma. His position
enabled him to protect certain kittahs, or priests, whose lives were in danger, and in
return they bestowed on him unprecedented privileges of entry into their secret and
From his account, we learn that the Indian Brahmins were the bitter enemies of the people
of Khmer and their beloved kittahs. From the commencement of the eighteenth century
they had mercilessly pursued and massacred these priests, who to escape from their
persecuting zeal, fled to North Burma, where the mountains afforded security from
pursuit. There, amid chaotic labyrinths and dizzy precipices, the indomitable kittahs
founded the marvellous subterranean Temple of Lao-Tsun (the Abode of the Gods), and
practiced the secret rites that were closed to all but the higher castes among their own
Gordon describes the Temple of Lao-Tsun as “one of the greatest marvels of the East—
situated in the east of Lake Incaougji, between Magaoung and Sembo, in an almost
desert region of immense peaks and chaotic labyrinths, it offers a barrier of
insurmountable walls. Here there still existed in 1898 the last kittahs (priests), and as a
most extraordinary favour I was permitted to see and observe them and their sacred
animals. Following the rebellion and the English occupation, at the base of Bhamo (a
base very isolated and distant from Mandalay), we had to protect the kittahs against
Brahmin invasion, and we saved them from certain massacre and pillage. Their Lama-
littah received me, and presented me with a plaque representing the Sacred Cat at the
feet of a bizarre deity, whose eyes are made of two long sapphires (specimen No.4108 in
my collection at Mildenhall), and after having shown me the sacred cats, in number about
a hundred, explained their origin to me.” This he did by relating the following beautiful
“When, with the malevolent moon, the barbarian Siamese Thais came to the mountains of
the Sun, Mun-Ha was living in the temple of Lao-Tsun. Mun-Ha, the most precious among
the most precious, for whom the god Song-Hio had woven the beard of gold. This
venerable priest had ever lived in rapt contemplation of Tsun-Kyan-kse, the goddess with
eyes of sapphire who presided over the transmutation of souls about to receive their
dues, whose searching eyes none could evade. Mun-ha had an oracle who dictated his
decisions, and this was his cat Sinh, whom the kittahs fervently revered.
“Seated close to his dread master, Sinh lived in the contemplation of the goddess. The
beautiful animal! His eyes were yellow like gold from the reflection of the metallic beard of
Mun-Ha, yellow like the amber body of the goddess with the sapphire eyes.
“One night, at the rising of the moon, the Thais menacingly approached the sacred
Temple. Then, invoking destiny, Mun-Ha died, weighted down by years and anguish. He
died in the presence of his goddess; close beside him was his divine cat, and the kittahs
lamented their cruel loss.
But suddenly, the miracle of immediate transmutation took place. Sinh bounded on to the
holy Throne. Supported on the head of his stricken master he faced the goddess. And
the hair along his spine blanched to a golden hue. His eyes, golden of the gold of the
beard woven by the god Song-Hio—his eyes changed to blue—immense, abysmal,
sapphire—like to the eyes of the goddess. His four feet, brown as the earth, his four feet
which contacted the venerable skull, whitened to the claws, to the toe-tips, thus purified by
the touch of the puissant death.
Sinh turned towards the South Door, his imperious gaze, in which could be read an
imperative order, purified by the touch of the puissant dead.
Sinh turned towards the South Door, his imperious gaze, in which could be read an
imperative order, possessed of an invincible force the kittahs obeyed. Then they closed
on the ancestral enemy the bronze doors of the Holy Temple and passing by their
subterranean tunnel they routed the profane invaders.
Sinh refused all nourishment, and would not quit his Throne. He continued standing erect
and facing the goddess—mysterious priest—fixing his steadfast gaze on her eyes of
sapphire, partaking of their fire and sweetness.
Seven days after the death of Mun-Ha, erect on his purified feet of white, without lowering
an eyelash, he died. Thus was borne away towards Tsun-Kyan-Kse the soul of Mun-Ha.
Then—Oh wonder!—There came in slow procession the hundred cats of the Temple.
Their feet gloved in white; their snowy hair emitted the reflection of gold, and the topazes
of their eyes had changed to sapphires.
The kittahs fell prostrate in an attitude of devout fear, and waited. Did they not know that
the souls of their masters inhabited the harmonious forms of sacred animals? And these,
solemn and grave, surrounded Legoa—the most youthful of the Priests—and so revealed
the will of Heaven. When a sacred cat dies in the temple of Lao-Tsun, the soul of a kittah
re-enters—to quit no more—the mysterious paradise of Song-Hio, the god of gold.
Unhappy are those who even involuntarily hasten the end of these formidable and
venerable cats: the most dreadful torments are reserved for them, that the soul in pain
may be appeased.” (From the French of Marcelle Adam.)
Gordon, who does not relate this legend, in the remarks from which I have quoted, says of
it, that “The legend is pretty but explains nothing scientifically…One may feel assured that
the Burmese Cat is a very ancient race, but it will, I think, be impossible ever to obtain
documentary evidence about a race so rare that no breeder or author in the two
continents with whom I have corresponded within the last thirty years, has anything more
than a sketch of them, and only knows them by the writings of Auguste Pavie and of
Gordon describes the Burmese cats as being much like the Siamese in colouring, but
says they had white toes on all four feet, long hair, and magnificent bushy tails which they
usually carried over their backs in squirrel fashion. Their eyes were intensely blue, deep
and melancholy—gentle when at rest, but wild and fiery if angered.
An addendum from Diana Partington
The legend of the Sacred Burmese
cat fascinates me. Two books by journalists who travelled
to Burma in pursuit of the Birman and Burmese cats are particularly informative on the subject:
Of Cats and Kings by Claire De Vries & When Cats Reigned Like Kings by Georgie Anne Geyer.
Both women came up empty. No sign of the sacred Burmese cat anywhere. No historical
mention—nothing. When most people retell this story, their source is M. Oldfield Howey’s book
The Cat in Magic and Myth
Georgie Anne Geyer did extensive research on the sacred legend and its origins.
She seems to conclude that the legend actually originated from a pair of French sisters
in Marseille—perhaps breeders with a clever marketing angle? The Burmese officials assured her that
Lao-Tsun couldn’t possibly be a Burmese name. The sounds are clearly Chinese, not Burmese.
There are no relics or even rumours in Burma—that either author could turn up. The details
of the story just don’t hold up to any scrutiny. I have searched all the goddess tomes and
can't find any reference in authoritative texts or on the internet that refers to the goddess
Tsun-Kyan-kse except in the hundreds of reproductions of this story that populate the internet,
all focused on the origins of the ‘sacred Burmese cat’.
The only ‘Temple cats’ that either journalist could find were at a temple on Lake Inle—where
the monks had trained the local strays to jump through hoops for tourists. Interestingly, the
temple has received many donations from visiting tourists, impressed by the cat’s acrobatics.
But these are a far cry from ‘sacred cats’, again, it seems more like a marketing gimmick for
So where does that leave poor Tsun-Kyan-Kse? Who is this marvellous sapphire eyed goddess of
Transmutation (or Transmigration) of souls? Is she amber or is she white, as other versions tell?
Was she ever honoured in Burma?
I don’t have a definitive answer, but I will share my speculation. Based on the
research that I have done on the subject, I believe that two French sisters invented a marvellous
tale about the origins of their cats, they filled it with delightful details that have been
expanded and distorted over the years and years of retelling. Why? Maybe out of love, maybe it
was a vision, or a dream-shared with their beloved Birmans, maybe it was a marketing ploy.
Howey refers to a French translation as his source (as you can read for yourself in his article.)
Strangely enough, he seems to imply at the beginning of recounting the legend that the words are
Russell Gordon's, yet at the end of the story he writes in parenthesis “From the French of Marcelle
Adam.” It would seem that he is quoting the Adam's article “Revue Feline Belge”, rather than
quoting Gordon directly. Then he goes on to say “Gordon, who does not relate this legend,”
—So, per Howey, who exactly is the source of the legend?
What interests me particularly, is the timing of the emergence of this tale. According to
Roger Tabour (renowned animal biologist and author of “The Wild Life of the Domestic Cat”), the
very first cat show took place in London, at the Crystal Palace in 1871. The man who organized
the cat show, Harrison Weir, was a cat lover—and animal rights activist. He abhorred the culture
of cruelty to cats that had been prevalent in England and across Europe for centuries. He felt
that by exhibiting house cats at the Crystal Palace in the first cat show, he could educate the
public about the beauty and grace of the domestic cat. It was the beginning of a major cultural
Given the Europe's history of cat torture and cruelty—and the previously prevailing perception
that the cat was somehow demonic and consorted with the ‘devil’, I think that it is very natural
that with the emergence of the cat fancy, there should also emerge new myths about the cat.
Looking to Egypt would be uncomfortable for some, because so much of the imagery had be distorted
by the Church.
This was a time when fascination with the orient was at a peak—exploration, colonization,
exploitation were importing artistic treasures, spices, silks and other goods, as well as
travelogues filled with fantastical tales of exotica. How marvellous to steep oneself in all
that magic—without the taint of witch burnings and evil cats—instead, co-habitating with a living
mystery of the Orient, a Sacred Cat and the titillating sapphire eyed goddess that it served.
I have included Tsun-Kyan-Kse here, because if my hunch is correct, then she may not truly be
a Burmese goddess, but she is most certainly an authentic cat goddess—born of the longings of
western society to “transmutate” our relationship to the cat—to be reborn in a culture that
appreciates the cat. And she has presided divinely.
With regard to the cat, the cultural shift in the West over the last century has been enormous.
Thus it is entirely appropriate to honour Tsun-Kyan-Kse goddess of the transmigration of the cat.
From and with thanks to Feline Familiars Website.
© G.Reddy 2007
last edited on 29/07/2007