Colour: White with Brown or Grey Points traditionally, but various colours exist.
Terms that have been used to describe this breed include the following: Gentle, faithful, even-tempered, civilised, amenable, affectionate, intelligent, outgoing, robust and hardy. One Birman judge has referred to the breed as 'puppy-dogs in cats' bodies', because they are so responsive to their owners. Another commented: 'Birmans are really very polite cats...They speak in very soft, sweet voices, if at all.'
Domestic Breed: An ancient Burmese breed looking rather like a heavily built, long-haired Siamese, but with a unique paw-colouring. Also known as 'The Sacred Cat of Burma'. In France, where it has its strongest following, it is known as the 'Burman', or the Chat Sacré de Birmanie. In Germany it is called the Birmakatze ; in Holland the Heilige Birmann;. This breed has no connection with the Burmese Cat.
Appearance: The diagnostic feature of this breed is its pure white paws, giving the impression that it is wearing white gloves. The rest of the long, silky coat is essentially golden-fawn in colour, with the addition of the dark points typical of a Siamese. It is the combination of this dark-pointed pattern with the white paw colour that gives the breed its extraordinary, kid-gloved appearance. The gene that causes the white markings obviously clashes with the typical 'Siamese' colouring and over-rides it, so that the darkening of the legs has to stop short of the paws, creating a sharp margin. The eyes are a vivid blue, again like the Siamese. The body, however, is long and stocky, with short, powerful legs and a large rounded head.
In the cat show world, the white front paws are referred to as 'gloves' and the back paws as 'socks'. The white markings underneath the back paws are called 'gauntlets'.
Legendary History: The legend of the Birman tells the story of the hundred pure white cats with yellow eyes who were the guardians of the sacred Khmer temple at Lao-Tsun on the side of Mount Lugh in Burma, many centuries ago, before the time of Buddha. The temple housed a golden image of the blue-eyed goddess called Tsun-Kyan-Kse, who was able to order the reincarnation of priests in the bodies of holy animals. Once the soul of a priest had been transferred to the body of one of the sacred cats it was then possible for it to pass on from the innocent feline to a heavenly state in the afterlife. In other words, for the priests, the cats were seen as the spiritual pathway to paradise, which explains why they were so carefully protected.
The high priest, Mun-Ha, had a favourite cat known as Sinh. One day they were sitting together in front of the idol when the temple was attacked by raiders from Siam. Elderly Mun-Ha suffered a heart attack as he prayed. Sinh reacted by placing his paws on the body of the dying priest. As he did so, he was facing the golden, blue-eyed idol and in the moment of his master's death he was transformed, his eyes turning blue and his fur golden. Then the extremities of his body darkened to the colour of the earth, except for his paws which, where they were in contact with his master's snowy white hair, retained their original, pure white colouring. As these changes occurred, the soul of the dead priest passed into Sinh's body.
Witnessing this amazing metamorphosis, the other priests sprung into action and drove their attackers from the temple. Sinh never ate again and died a few days later, dutifully taking his master's soul to paradise. The other cats then reappeared in the temple, and it was soon obvious that every one of them had changed into the new, sacred colours - golden fur with dark points, white paws and blue eyes. They encircled a young priest called Lioa, indicating that he was chosen to become the new high priest. From that day onward the Sacred Cats of Burma retained their colouring and the Birman breed was fixed for all time.
Factual History: The truth about the origin of this breed is difficult to ascertain. If a colony of long-haired white cats really did exist in the ancient temple, the chances are that it was the sudden arrival of a virile Siamese Cat that caused the transformation rather than any supernatural occurrence.
Whatever their ancient origin, it remains to explain their recent history - how they came to be in the hands of French breeders just after the end of World War I. There are four different versions of this story:
(1) In 1898 there was a large colony of these cats living in the Burmese temple of Lao-Tsun, where they were revered and cared for by the priests. There was a Brahmin invasion in the region and an English Officer by the name of The Hon. Russell Gordon, who had been active locally in the Third Burmese War in 1885, came to the rescue of the priests and saved them from certain massacre. He was received at the temple, situated East of Lake Incaougji, between Magaoung and Sembo, where the Lama-kittah (the head priest) showed him the sacred cats and presented him with a plaque depicting one of them at the feet of a bizarre deity, whose eyes were made of two long sapphires. As a result of his actions, he was later to be presented with a pair of the sacred cats, which were sent to France.
(2) There is a variation of this tale, as follows: There was a rebellion in the region of the Lao-Tsun temple in 1916. Two Europeans, a British officer, Major Gordon Russell, and a Frenchman called Auguste Pavie, came to the aid of the priests during this crisis and helped some of them to flee to the mountains of Tibet. They took some of their sacred cats with them to perpetuate the breed and established a new temple of Lao-Tsun. The holy men were later to show their gratitude. In 1919 they sent a pair of their precious cats to France as a special gift.
On the surface, either of these stories sounds plausible enough, but on close examination they have many flaws and appear to be as fictitious as the original, legendary tale.
First, the Hon. Russell Gordon did not exist. According to Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, Vice-president of the National Cat Club, writing in 1969, neither of the noble families to which he could have belonged had ever heard of him. Nor does he appear in any of the appropriate works of reference listing 'Honourables'. But supposing his name was, in reality, "Russell, Gordon"? Could he have been the Hon. Gordon Russell? Apparently not. Once again, the noble families of that surname knew nothing of him. Supposing, then, that he was not an "Hon.,", but simply a Major? Unfortunately, neither a Major Russell Gordon, nor a Major Gordon Russell appear in any Army List for the period.
Not only is the Birman's saviour a mystery figure, but the Brahmin invasion is also in doubt. Vesey-Fitzgerald will have none of it: 'There could not...have been a Brahmin invasion of Burma. A Brahmin is a member of a Hindu priestly caste: and Burma and India were united under British rule. It would be better if the 'Hon. Russell Gordon and his fairy tales were forgotten.'. In addition, the large discrepancies in the dates in the two versions of the 'attacked temple' story do not exactly enhance their reliability.
(3) An alternative version of how these cats came to the West suggests that, in reality, an American Millionaire travelling in the Far East - the name of Vanderbilt is mentioned - managed to purchase two Birmans in 1918, by bribing a disloyal temple servant to release them against the wishes of the priests. If the sacred temple cats were thought to harbour the souls of departed brethren, a reluctance to disposing of them as gifts would not be surprising.
A slight weakness in this story is that, if an American millionaire were involved, one would have expected the first exported Birman cats to end up in the United States, when in reality they arrived in France. According to one rumour, Mr Vanderbilt sent them to a Mme. Thadde Hadisch in Nice.
Once we reach the stage in these three stories where the pair of sacred cats is on the high seas, heading for France, all three versions begin to agree with one another. In each case, the pair of 'founding cats' is recorded as consisting of a male called Madalpour and a female called Sita. The male is said to have died during the long journey, but the female was more resilient and managed to survive. By a stroke of luck, she was pregnant and, on arrival, produced a litter in which there was one perfectly marked female kitten that was given the name of Poupée. Poupée was then bred either to a Persian or a Siamese, and the modern history of the Birman Cat began.
(4) All three of these 'histories' of the Birman Cat have been questioned by certain authorities. They suspect that, not only the fanciful legend of Mun-Ha, but the whole Burma story is a complete fiction. It is their contention that the breed was artificially created by French breeders who carefully cross-bred a variety of Siamese and Long-haired Cats. Once they had created a delightful hybrid they then invented an exotic background for it, to make it more appealing and to add to its pedigree status. There may, of course, have been a real cat that was given to a real Monsieur Pavie, or a real Mr Vanderbilt, but it may not have looked anything like the present day Birman. It could have been a rather ordinary feline, which, with a little judicious help in French catteries was converted into the enchanting cat that the Birman undoubtedly is today.
One fact of which we can be certain is that, in France, the Birman became a great favourite and was quickly established as a pedigree breed. It was recognized as such as early as 1925 by the French Feline Federation and remained popular in that country in the decades that followed. As late as 1946, two American authors were labelling this cat, rather confusingly, as the 'French Burmese', confirming at least that France was the centre of the breed's development .
Despite its growing popularity there, however, it is said that during World War Two, the population of Birmans in France was decimated and that eventually, at the end of the war, there were only a few left. In Germany only two breeders managed to keep their Birmans alive. Although it was hanging by such a slender thread, the breed was saved and after the war the numbers were soon increasing again. The first of the Continental Birmans to be exported were sent to the USA in 1959. The breed first arrived in Britain in 1964.
In 1966 the Birman was recognized as a pedigree cat for competition purposes in the UK and in 1967 the United States followed suit.
There is an intriguing footnote to the confusing history of the Birman Cat. It is reported that in 1960 an American breeder, Mrs G. Griswold, acquired a pair of 'Tibetan Temple Cats' which, on inspection, turned out to be Birmans. To some, the conclusion was obvious: these cats must be descended from the few that were rescued from the temple and taken into exile with the priests.
Just at the point when many people were beginning to believe the criticisms of the Burmese origin of the breed, the importation of these Tibetan Temple Cats created a dilemma. If they are genuine, the Birman must, after all, have an ancient temple history, and the whole story of its historical beginnings must be re-examined.
Personality: Terms that have been used to describe this breed include the following: Gentle, faithful, even-tempered, civilised, amenable, affectionate, intelligent, outgoing, robust and hardy. One Birman judge has referred to the breed as 'puppy-dogs in cats' bodies', because they are so responsive to their owners. Another commented: 'Birmans are really very polite cats...They speak in very soft, sweet voices, if at all.'
GCCF: Seal Point; Blue Point; Chocolate Point; Lilac Point; Red Point; Cream Point; Seal Tortie Point; Blue Tortie Point; Chocolate Tortie Point; Lilac Tortie Point; Seal Tabby Point; Blue Tabby Point; Chocolate Tabby Point; Lilac Tabby Point; Red Tabby Point; Cream Tabby Point; Seal Tortie Tabby Point; Blue Tortie Tabby Point; Chocolate Tortie Tabby Point; Lilac Tortie Tabby Point.
CFA: Seal Point; Blue Point; Chocolate Point; Lilac Point.
Birman Cat Club. Address: 20 Hillside Drive, Little Haywood, Stafford, ST18 0NN, England; and there is an annual publication: The Birman Year. Address: Gate Cottage, Church Hill, Sedlescombe, E. Sussex TN33 0QP, England.
National Birman Fanciers (NBF). Address: P.O.Box 1830, Stephenville, Texas 76401, USA. or 14007 Campaign St., Fredricksburg, VA 22407, USA. Publishes a NBF News magazine.
Nine Silver Bells (Birmans). Address: 115 S. Springvalley Road, McMurray, PA 15317, USA.
Sacred Cat of Burma (Birman) Fanciers (SCBF). Address: 5542 Cleveland Road, Wooster, Ohio 44691, USA. (Note: Through this club it is possible to obtain a copy of The Birman Book by Vivienne Smith.)
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