Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
One thing distinguishes the Buddhist monastery on the shores of Lake Inlay in Myanmar from the rest: flying felines.
Thirty years ago, the head monk disproved the deeply-rooted idea that you can’t train a cat. Local cats have been swimming, fetching sticks, and jumping through hoops ever since—feats that would even do a dog proud.
ERIC PASQUIER meets the monks and discovers that, with all the tourists that come to see the acrobatic circus cats, both monk and cat have never had it so good.
Air Mandalay flight ATR72 lands gently on the Heho airstrip, 500km north of Yangon, capital of Myanmar (formerly the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma).
From Nyaung Shwe, a sleepy little tourist town in the Shan territory of the South, the long and narrow Lake Inlay twists its way through the bucolic serenity of the high mountains towering over it.
Some 180 monasteries are scattered among the shores of the great lake and as many villages. Here, in Myanmar, a village without a monastery is not considered a village at all.
Of the temples here, the most beautiful is also the strangest. Nga Phe Chaung, the “monastery of the flying cats”, was built by the Inthas in the early 18th century and is now inhabited by three monks/cat trainers.
A bonze, clad in saffron robes, stands by the shore holding a striped cat in his arms. Without warning, he throws it into the air and the cat uncoils like a spring before landing with a splash in the water. Whoever said cats hate water? This one seems to love it, swimming back to its master like a black Labrador proudly returning after fetching a stick. It is one of the monastery’s nine live-in cats, all of which are perfectly obedient creatures putting an end to the belief that cats are impossible to train.
At 61, the “father superior” has been living in Nga Phe Chaung monastery for the last 40 years. Today he is the sixth head bonze at the monastery, but the first cat-training monk ever. One day many years ago, while living alone in the temple, a visitor gave him a pedigree Burmese cat. From that day on, the animal was always by his side. Monastic life, with its strict rules, went on as usual after the new arrival.
But one day, while the bonze was meditating in the lotus position, the cat came and curled up on his lap. He tried to shoo it away, but amazingly the cat jumped over his outstretched arm like an acrobat. Astounded, he made the decision to begin training the animal. Patiently, the bonze taught the cat to leap higher and higher with perfect discipline, following his every command. Soon the cat was jumping through a hoop and performing increasingly impressive stunts. Before long, there were several cats living in the monastery, all as nimble and disciplined as the first.
Thirty years later, the bonze says he does not regret having introduced cats into Nga Phe Chaung. A victim of the gradual urbanization of the local populations, the temple is surrounded by only 38 houses today, where there were some 700 in the not so distant past.
Traditionally, the monks are fed by the people, and as word went around about the astonishing cats of Nga Phe Chaung, every day new offerings were being brought to the temple by the Inthas – the local people living around the lake.
But more importantly, new recruits were joining the monastery, taking the monastic oath and living side-by-side with the elder bonzes. The “father superior” has initiated two new recruits, whom he has taught to train the cats. News of the monastery travelled far and wide, well beyond the mountains that tower majestically over Lake Inlay. Spurred by curiosity, people come from afar to admire the acrobatics of the flying cats of Nga Phe Chaung. The monastery has also become something of a tourist attraction. The money people bring with them as offerings helps to keep the monastery alive and well.
Velvety-pawed Soe Thu is a male descendant of the original “flying cat”.
The two females, Moe Myint Aung and May Thin Za Do, have given him six young, all named after actors and actresses who enjoy widespread fame in Myanmar. There is Htet Moe Doe, Myo Than Dar Htun, Ye Ko Ko (the only male child), the twins Moe and Soe, and the ultra-famous Madonna! They accompany the monks everywhere throughout the temple, sharing every moment of their daily lives.
At 3 am, monks and cats alike awake for their morning ritual. While water boils for the preparation of tea, the bonzes are lost in meditation and prayer and the ever-languorous felines curl up comfortably at the foot of the Golden Buddha, where they remain—in their own state of meditation—until six in the morning when breakfast is served.
In the great main room of the temple, there are 650 teak pillars, 200 of which are covered in gold leaf. It is here that the villagers supply the monks of the monastery with their daily meals. Until 11 am, when lunch is served, the monks spend all their time praying and meditating, alone or in groups, but always in the company of the graceful felines, whose presence is as subtle as the gilded 18th century Buddhas in the room.
Finally, at noon, and until 5 pm, the acro-cats put on a show for all to see. “Khon!” (Jump!) orders a bonze and instantly Madonna, the little black cat, leaps gracefully over his outstretched arm. “Khon!” shouts another monk, and the grey Ye Ko Ko leaps through a hoop held a metre above the floor. “Khon!” barks yet another monk, and the cat leaps again into the air at the sound of the magic word. Even Moe and Soe, barely a year old, already love to perform.
“Kittens imitate their parents as early as the age of two months,” explains one of the monks. Before nightfall and bedtime for monks and felines alike, the monks go into their deep meditation, and the cats, who seem to understand the importance of their spiritual work, remain ever silent and obedient.
The cats’ astonishing tricks attract many visitors to the monastery. But here, in the heart of Myanmar, the people are accustomed to incredible happenings. The Inthas of Lake Inlay adhere faithfully to their traditions, venerating Buddha and ever fearing the tutelary spirits, the “nats”. For the Inthas, life and legend go hand in hand. And for the past 30 years, ever since the “flying cats of Nga Phe Chaung” have shared the daily life of the temple with their bonze protectors, one could say that here, “trained cats swim like fish in water,” or even “fly like a bird through the sky.” And so it is that legends are born.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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