Tooth-picked legged cats lounge across the teak wood floor, squeezing in between pillars and optimizing for sun. A tourist takes a finger and scratches under the chin of a speckled tabby while a 7 inch long kitten competes in a staring contest with a 17 inch long lens. Other tourists gaze longingly from the side while the cats remain indifferent.
A monk garbed in maroon approaches from the left staircase. All the cats leap up and surround him, meowing. The monk smiles, and the halo of cats at his feet escort the monk on his stroll.
“Excuse meee, excuse mee,” chimes a freckled nose 8 year old, “When can we see the cats jump?” The boy stares wide eyed at the monk.
The monk doesn’t say anything, and the boy chimes in again, “Exccusseee mee!!!” This time the boy is a bit louder which amplifies the concern in his voice. But the monk keeps walking.
The boy, torn between the decision of running after the monk and trying to grab one of the few lingering cats, remains blank-faced, and an equally freckled woman drags him to the next room.
There use to be a monk at the monastery who trained the stray cats to jump and hence the place grew to have the nickname “Jumping Cats Monastery”. The monk has died, but the tradition of making cats jump has lived on. Today, many old, Burmese women still bustle in and chase after the cats trying to get them to jump in order to get their share of good luck.
This isn’t to say this was the first monastery that had cats. From Yangon to Mandalay to Bagan and now Inlay, we toured monasteries and pagodas all strewed with dogging dogs and couldn’t-care-less cats. And each time without fail, my sister would yelp and run over (admittedly along with every other westerner) upon seeing a furry creature.
Here at Jumping Cat Monastery, my sister stares fixed at the Burmese version of our cat. My sister’s mouth opens, and her arms stretch out in what I believe is an attempt to entice the cat into her arms. Cooing and telling the cat “she’s a good kitty,” Anneka sedates the cat long enough to go in for a hug.
Our guide Yiddion with a patient, round face sits on the steps and just laughs.