Issue 30 The Underground Summer 2008
Inventory / Auspicious Cats
“Inventory” is a column that examines or presents a list, catalogue, or register.
Thai cats have been exported to Europe since the nineteenth century. The Siamese was the first breed to arrive on British shores, where it quickly became popular and attracted the exotic moniker “The Royal Cat of Siam.” The Siamese Cat Club, newly formed in January 1901, thus made inquiries at the Siamese Legation in London about their favorite feline. The answer they received on 17 September 1901 was not what they had expected:
The King of Siam does not keep any special breed, nor are there any specially preserved in his palace ... There is no Royal Cat of Siam. ... Nor does any religious sanctity attach to any cat of Siam. ... These ideas have probably arisen from the fact that the Siamese people are generally fond of animals, cats included.
The reality is slightly more nuanced. While there is no Royal Cat of Siam, cats have a role in court rituals, and although no religious significance attaches to cats in Thailand (as Siam became in 1939), they have long been traditional objects of superstition there. In fact, the Siamese, as well as other popular Thai breeds known today as Korat, Burmese, and Tonkinese, were favored not only because of aesthetic considerations but also because they were deemed auspicious.
These superstitions were recorded in manuscripts titled the Tamra Maew—“Treatises on Cats.” Illustrated catalogues of auspicious and sometimes also inauspicious cats, they are traditionally regarded as having their origin in the Ayutthaya period (1351–1767), although all extant manuscripts today date from after the Bangkok restoration (1782 onwards). The treatises—possibly the oldest breed standards in the world—typically list seventeen types of auspicious cats, though some include as many as twenty-two. Presented on the following pages are illustrations of fourteen auspicious cats from a mid-nineteenth-century Tamra Maew. The corresponding breed descriptions are derived from the best-known version of the manuscript: an early nineteenth-century variation currently in the collection of the National Library of Thailand. Consider this your guide to knowing your Wichien Maas (“Moon Diamond”) from your Kao Taem (“Nine Points”).Thanks to Debbie and John Howard for permission to reproduce images from the manuscript in their possession and to Dr. Julia Craig-McFeely for providing scans.
Martin Clutterbuck is the author of Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality (While Lotus Press, 2004) and is a student of classical Thai literature. He is a British expatriate resident of Bangkok, currently working in public relations.
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© 2008 Cabinet Magazine