Thai cats in the Buddhist temple
Culture of Thai cats in Buddhist temples.
Wat Thong Noppakhun
To approach a temple, one must start with the Abbot (Jao Awat), which involves kneeling to him in his seat. I needed to ask for the TV camera to be allowed to shoot the mural in his main chapel, a building which assumed its present form in the early 19th century.
While waiting, when talking about cats to local laypeople at the temple, one pointed me to an old manuscript cabinet. He said there was a cat book inside, maybe, but at that moment, none dared open the cabinet. It required the attentions of manuscript experts from the Fine Arts Department, but none was available right now.
Finally the Abbot arrived, and was the most genial of hosts. We talked about the mural, and our ETA to film it, we talked about cats and I gave him my book, and then he kept talking about monks' house number eight.
Quarters for celibate monks, or "kuti", are organized in various ways in different temples, and Wat Thong, as common for a largish city monastery, has a structured arrangement of several large C shaped buildings on 2 floors with a court yard, each assigned to a group of monks or "Khana", with accommodation for maybe 15 monks. So what was going on at "Khana Paed" (house number 8)? And where was it?
I wasn't prepared for the sight that greeted me there, and for curses did not have a camera. I spoke a bit with the temple boys who fed the cats, but there was no one much else to talk to about bringing cameras there, as far as I knew then.. the central house was closed, forbidding.
However, this was great news for me. A temple with cats was on the shooting agenda. I'd already visited one candidate temple, Wat Ladsanan in Pathum Thani, which had been interesting enough to provide photos for the book*, 8 years ago. However in 2011 it was now terribly disappointing! Cat colonies can decline for many reasons, whether their principal human benefactors move on or pass away, or some local nuisance comes to the neighbourhood like wild dogs or snakes.
Now seeing the feline riches of Wat Thong, I was greatly heartened that we would be able to shoot cats and murals at the same location - amazing serendipity.
Arriving again with the TV crew, we made a beeline to the chapel. It was decided to open the side windows, keeping back and front closed, for optimal light.
After the mural was captured, I led the team to house number eight. Jaw dropping time for them, as the first thing we saw was a Siamese queen feeding a litter of little Siameses, and feline eyes pointing from all directions in their primaeval cat Eden.
Marc lost no time getting to work and the cats were intrigued by the huge lens of his of his big TV camera, staring right into it. Some novices (boys under the age of 20, but in yellow robes) we had talked to at their lessons, helped provide the human touch. The central room though had opened slightly. Inside a very frail old man, said to be very ill, the senior monk of the Khana. But the cats in there! Beautiful little Siamese kittens by the dozen! But we were only allowed the merest glimpses.
Phra Khru Wiboon Yanakij is the senior monk of Khana Paed and over 91 years old, and therefore appropriately addressed as Luang Pu, "Holy Grandfather". The first time I managed to talk to him, was in the company of Stephane Montelheit, soon after the Animal Planet filming Two more visits followed, with Cristy Bird's friend Jenni Toivoniemi, and I've been back since.
He occupies the ground unit of House number 8, surrounded by the cutest Siamese kittens I've seen anywhere. As befits his advanced years, he's rather frail and prone to illness, but in conversation perfectly lucid.
It was he that brought up the connection with Somdet Phra Puttajan*, a former abbot of Wat Anongkharam, another, much larger left bank temple less than a kilometre upstream of Wat Thong. When he died, a committee commissioned a funeral book for him which was almost certainly the first time the text of the Tamra Maew was moved from samut khoi to the printed page, the book dated to 1953.
The committee made it clear he was known when alive for both raising kittens and studying the Tamra Maew, with an explicit link of choosing cats "that matched those in the treatise"*
At 91 years old, Luang Pu was 32 at the time of this funeral and as he told me, had every opportunity to interact with Somdet Phra Puttajan as a fully mature monk, including witnessing the raising of cats, an inspiration for having cats in his quarters himself.
Therefore, he has every claim to be a living continuous lineage of the Tamra Maew and breeding cats in the temple, one which could be passed to the monks in his quarters. As mentioned previously, Luang Pu's colony at Wat Thong gives a very good idea of what breeding was like, when the Tamra Maew was the only text for guidance. For the record, I didn't see Luang Pu had a copy, but he mentioned it, and I gave him one of my books, so he has now :)
The cats are not separated or caged in any way, and find ample space in the nooks and corners of the big building, or in the branches of the mature trees in front of it. The house, with its forbidding front wall, is somewhat their refuge from canine and other interlopers.
They are fed by men called "dek Wat" who are laymen to whom devolve all tasks of maintenance unsuitable for the monks to do themselves. Dek Wat feed the cats at specified meal times and also organize medicine and vets when the cats are ill, and Fan is one of them.
He mischievously recounted to me the tale of a Siamese cat which a layperson had wanted to take for himself for the princely sum of 2,000 baht. Once the cat figured she was to be taken away, however, she was far too quick for her captors and darted to the upper branches of the trees and the roof of the building, eluding all attempts at capture. In celebration of this, she has been known ever since as Song Pan (2,000).
He also explained to me that Luang Pu had started with one Siamese queen who was still producing litters when we were there. Of course her sires are not documented, but at least one must have had the requisite genes to produce what looks like many pure looking seal point Siamese. Some cats have what looks like the full complement of Copper genes, and there is an intriguing Siamese-Copper pair who are almost certainly siblings. I've come across this before, in a pair I used to own, and the genetics of this are maybe worthy of further study. But don't they look lovely?
I took full advantage of the TV crew's insistence that all the side windows of the chapel at Wat Thong Noppakhun be opened, and was able to take clear images without the use of flash or a tripod. And without the glare of the chandelier, capture the entire back wall.
Contrasting with all the action on other walls, much of which was in fact drawn from the Jataka - part of the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka (one of the pile of books on the left), the Buddhist Bible - also known in English as the Pali Canon, is here in the form of Bai Lan - the palm leaves scratched in Khmer, Mon or Thai characters brought up with ash, bound with string (not samut khoi, which are ink on paper)*
Two tiny teeny moggies, one sitting and one crouching, stand guard against vermin. In real life, the enemies of learning would include mice, rats and cockroaches, the latter a favourite toy of Thai kitties.
Looking closely at the close-ups again I noticed that the artist had not neglected to colour their eyes. The white cat is clearly blue-eyed, and the black and white cat has yellow eyes.
This realistic correspondence of eye and coat colour, and correspondence to descriptions in the Tamra Maew for the black and white cat*, would suggest these two may well have been drawn from life, as two non-tabby, non-ordinary cats around the temple at that that time. Maybe one of them was an ancestor of this fellow:
Siamese and Copper Gallery: Wat Thong Noppakhun
Luang Pu's foundation dam, with kitten.
Almost black, very dark sable Copper.
Probably belongs in the other gallery, the points are not exactly sealpoint in colour.
The Siamese-Copper sibling pair, who have a cameo in the movie, if you look hard enough.
Everybody say "Awwwwwww".
"Is this all??!! Cheezburger az well plz!"
Black, white and others Gallery: Wat Thong Noppakhun
This girl looks like she has had kittens to boost the black-with-white spotting population of the colony and go for some of the more unusual Tamra Maew patterns.
A real black cat I think. Ninlarat or Konja in the poems.
This cat wants to be the white cat in the mural, lovely blue eyes but a few stray markings.
Is this the same cat? Here showing its mixed ancestry, a variation striven for by breeders but here naturally occurring. Follow some other cats with Siamese and or Copper blood, mainly identified by the eyes.
Common cats at Wat Thong
Wat Thong does not lack ordinary tabby, orange or tortoiseshell cats, which are not considered especially lucky.
Tabby: you know it's Thai, because of the kinked tail.
(Above and below) White spotting is very usual.
This little tortie stole the camera too.
Jenni and Cristy
Dr Cristy Bird in California was my mentor on Thai cat biology in the preparation of Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality, for which she produced a whole chapter on "Thailand: a Cat Superpower". After telling her about the Wat Thong cats, she wanted some, and the opportunity arose with the visit to Thailand of her friend Jenni Toivoniemi, whom I took to the temple.
Luang Pu was presented with cat food and we asked for a kitten, and he kindly gave us one boy, called Jiw (little). Jiw is now named Rammasoon and is now living happily in America with Cristy.
Cristy's Rammasoon and Laia
"Jiw" from Wat Thong Noppakhun successfully made the long journey to Cristy Bird's Sarsenstone cattery in California where he is now known as “Rammasoon”. Here he is with Laia, another Thai cat with ancestors obtained from Khun Arm in Bangkok and Ed and Malee Rose in Chiang Mai. Laia is the one with the straight tail.
Wat Thong Feb 2013: Siamese and Copper
From a visit to Wat Thong in the company of Nancy Day and her friends in February 2013. Luang Pu was not present.
Feeding time enables a rough count of at least 30 cats. The majority are semi-albino.
You wanted a photo? Here you are!
You my brudder?
They seek her here, they seek her there: The elusive Song Pan
Feline inflation: Song Pan's litter, called - what else? - Sam Pan (3,000) and See Pan (4,000)
A nice shot of See Pan
She of the posed foreleg.
Almost black Copper.
Wat Thong Feb 2013: Others
Progress of the black-and-white gang, a pretty lynx-point, and two Copper/Siamese with heavy white spotting.