The Birman was the first longhair breed with Siamese-type points. It is a beautiful cat, with a colourful story of its origins as a temple cat in Burma to match. Much suspicion has always been attached to the official version of its origins, but...well, read on and see what you think...
The legend of the Birman starts in a temple in Burma, now Myanmar. It is set in a temple to Tsun Kyan-Kse, a goddess of the Khmer people who presided over the passage of souls. The temple had a magnificent statue of her with sapphires for eyes. One hundred pure white cats lived here as companions and temple guardians. When a priest died, his soul entered the body of one of these sacred cats, to be reborn when it died. One particular golden-eyed cat, named Sinh, was the companion of the head priest, Mun-Ha.
One night, the temple was attacked by forces from Siam (now Thailand). That same night the head priest died, either being killed by the raiders, or from natural causes. But as he lay dying, Sinh leaped on to him, his eyes fixed on the statue of the goddess. Then his coat took on the golden colour of the statue and the brown shades of the earth, all except for his feet. These, which were touching the head of Mun-Ha, remained snow white. His eyes turned sapphire blue, reflecting those of the goddess. He had become the first seal-point Birman. Sinh then turned and stared at the south door of the temple, and the priests, inspired by what they saw as a sign from the goddess, rushed to secure it and managed to hold off the invaders.
Sinh remained on Mun-Ha's body for the next week, refusing all food, gazing at the statue. Then he died, carrying the soul of the dead priest to the goddess. Seven days later, when the priests assembled to decide who should succeed Mun-Ha, the remaining temple cats appeared, and all had been transformed just as Sinh had been. They surrounded the youngest of the priests, and he was declared Mun-Ha's successor. From then on they were regarded as Sacred Cats, and so the Birman breed was born.
Although many people dismiss this legend as just another pretty story to explain the existence of another manufactured cat, evidence from Birman Cat Club members suggests that cats similar to the Birman have been known in that area of the world for very many years. During the 1930s, Mr Len Sayer, whose wife bred Birmans for many years, was serving with the British army in Burma. Always a cat lover, he remembers seeing groups of seal-point Birmans living wild amongst temple ruins. These cats were fed and protected by the local people who believed that to injure a Sacred Cat was to put their immortal souls in danger. Other westerners on holiday in Burma have seen similar cats, both in pictures and in the flesh, and have had them described as traditional cats of that country. So there may be some truth in the legend.
So far...well, perhaps. But the story of how Birman catsgot from the mountains of Burma to the show halls of Europe is just as romantic and far fetched...
In the most popular story, two Europeans were given two cats for saving a temple from being destroyed by Brahmins. The male cat died on the way to France, but the female was pregnant on arrival in Paris, and founded the Birman in Europe. The main problem with this story seems to be that the two men were in southeast Asia in 1898, but the cats were sent to France in 1919. This is possible, but seems implausible.
Another tale, recorded in 1926, says that a male and female cat were stolen and given to an American millionaire, and then passed on to a Mme Thadde Hadisch. Again the male died, but the female produced kittens after arriving in France, this time in Nice in 1920. A female kitten was supposedly mated to a Laotian lynx, an unheard of breed that seems identical to the Siamese. This produced a cat of perfect type, Manou de Madalpour. But when the purported owner of the Laotian lynx was contacted by those trying to find out the truth, he claimed to have no knowledge of Mme Hadisch, or the cat, or the Laotian breed. He did, however, own several Siamese! Manou de Madalpour was real, and her owner had been told this story of her origins.
None of these fantastic stories can be verified. All that is known for certain is that a breed by the name of Sacre de Birmanie, the Sacred Cat of Burma, was registered in France in 1925. Interestingly, this is just when breeders in Europe were making the first crosses of Persians with Siamese to create the forerunners of the Colourpoint Persian. Another pointed longhair breed was also first recorded in France in the 1920s; this was called the Khmer, and the story is that a soldier returning from Indochina brought a breeding pair to Paris.
Whatever its origins, the breed almost died out in World War II. It is reported to have been reduced to just two cats before outcrossing to appropriate breeds was undertaken. The revived breed was accepted on both sides of the Atlantic by all the major registries during the 1960s. Today it is extremely popular, being in the top ten breeds in both the USA and the UK. The Birman and the legend of its origin are well established around the world, and it seems extremely unlikely that either will fade away any time soon.
So, ancient Sacred Cat of Burma with fantastic and colourful origins? Or lovely cat produced by the creative flair of twentieth century French breeders? You can take your pick. And while you may not want to own a hundred of these cats as the temple did, many people do find that one Birman is just not enough.