Sacred Cats of Siam

For most people in the US or Europe a "Siamese" cat is the famous seal point with its wedge shaped head and blue eyes. But in Thailand it is the Khao Manee ("White Jewel"), sometimes known as the Khao Plort ("All White"), which is the most popular and celebrated of the traditional breeds. Recent research has uncovered that they, not the seal point, were the true Royal Cats of Old Siam.

The Khao Manee, which can be identified by its pure white fur and eyes of differing colors, is among the most exotic and interesting of all cats. Some have pairings of one blue and one emerald green eye, while others have blue and yellow pairings, sometimes called "Gold and Silver Eyes." The blue eye is called the diamond or gem eye. Around the pupil is a starburst pattern, visible only in natural light, which gives the eyes a "diamond cut" look. According to Thai folklore, animals with this feature have supernatural powers.

The Khao Manees' popularity goes back many years. These auspicious cats were described in the Tamra Maew (the Book of Cat Poems, 1350-1767) as one of the 17 "good cats." They were a particular favorite of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), one of Thailand's greatest kings, who bred and fixed the type, and they were closely guarded in the royal palace. The penalty (so legend has it) for a commoner stealing one was death. It was probably in order to show reverence to a departed monarch that when the young King of Siam was crowned in 1926, a Khao Manee was carried by the Court Chamberlains in the procession to the Throne Room.

Rama V had nine Khao Manees and loved them so much he entrusted his son, Prince Chumporn Khetudomsak, to raise and breed them from nine to eighteen. Later, Princess Roengchitchrang Apakorn, daughter of Prince Chumporn, inherited the work and the eighteen cats became forty. During the 1880's Siam faced the threat of colonization by Britain and France, and it was during these fraught times that King Rama V gave a pair of seal point Siamese cats to an English consul general in Bangkok. These Siamese Cats were described as "royal," probably to give them added prestige, and became an instant sensation -- the British government agreed to let Siam retain its independence. What was not realized was that the wily king had given them a substitute, not a true Royal Cat!

The quaint belief that certain types of cats bring good fortune to those who look after them still exists in modern Thailand. For example, a Bangkok businessman who acquired a diamond-eyed cat and whose business subsequently prospered, staged an opulent wedding at the Phoebus Amphitheater for his cat and the diamond-eyed cat of a friend, complete with white bridal gown, a red tuxedo for the groom, and a dowry in cash and jewelry.

After death, according to another tradition, the cats should be dug up as their eyes will bring good luck.

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