Many centuries ago, in Southeast Asia, the priests of the ancient Khmer people believed in reincarnation and in the magical ability of animals to embody the souls of the departed.
But these priests, known as kittahs, were forced to flee their homeland to escape their enemies. They fled to the remote and desolate mountains of northern Burma, where they built one of the most magnificent temples in the world. There they worshipped their god, Song Hyo, and their beloved goddess, Tsun Kyankse.
The temple was known as Lao-Tsun, house of the gods, a beautiful building covered in gold leaf, hidden amidst winding pathways and towering mountain walls. There, in privacy, the priests were able to practice their beliefs.
Mun-Ha was the chief priest, the most precious of the precious. The god of gold had given him a beard of gold as symbol of his piety. Every look, every thought, every moment of Mun-Ha's life was dedicated to the worship of the goddess Tsun-Kyankse.
The kittahs believed that each priest, upon his death, relived the span of his existence in the body of his sacred animal, and this he did before the time when at last he would take his place in the perfect paradise of the gods. The goddess Tsun-Kyankse ruled over this process, known as the transmutation of souls, and the gaze of the goddess' sapphire eyes was so powerful, no one could evade it.
Mun-Ha's sacred animal was the beautiful white cat Sinh, one of a hundred cats who lived in the temple. Sinh sat by his master's side day and night, and the kittahs adored this creature, with yellow eyes reflecting the gold of his master's beard, a white body, and ears, tail, nose and paws the color of soil, a sign of the impurity of all those who live on Earth.
All was well for many years, but then one night, beneath the light of a rising full moon, the enemy from the east approached the sacred temple, creeping stealthily up through the steep mountain passes, ready to storm the temple and destroy it.
As the enemy neared the temple, suddenly the great priest, Mun-Ha, quietly died, and as he did, a miracle took place.
At the moment of Mun-Ha's death, Sinh leaped toward the throne and perched upon his master's head. He arched his back, and a moment later he was spellbound before the statue of the goddess, as if he too were a statue. The hairs upon his white back bristled, and as the priests watched in wonder, Sinh's white hair turned to gold, and his golden eyes turned to penetrating, dazzling sapphire, like the eyes of the cherished goddess.
Sinh turned his head toward the south door of the temple, and as he turned, each brown paw turned white.
The kittahs, seeing this, understood that this was clearly a command given by their leader, and so they rushed to the southern bronze doors. They threw their bodies against the doors just as the invaders reached them, and so they were able to save themselves and their temple.
The kittahs believed that their master's soul lived on in the body of Sinh.
Six days passed, and during that time Sinh neither ate nor drank nor moved. Instead he sat, his eyes fixed on the goddess. And then, on the seventh day, he too mysteriously died, and the kittahs knew that he was carrying the soul of his master and theirs, the holy Mun-Ha, toward the home of the goddess. Mun-Ha was now too perfect to remain on this Earth.
Seven more days passed, and during all those days the priests gathered to consult as to who would succeed their leader. And then a second miracle occurred. As the priests gathered to select a new chief, all 99 remaining cats came running, and each one was clothed in gold and gloved in white, and their eyes had turned from yellow to sapphire blue.
The kittahs bowed to the cats. Surely, they thought, the souls of their past masters inhabited these beautiful forms. And so they watched and waited, and then the cats moved forward solemnly until they had formed one large circle around the youngest of all the priests, a man named Legoa.
"So it is the will of heaven," the priests declared, "Legoa shall take Mun-Ha's place."
Afterward, whenever a sacred cat passed away in the temple of Lao-Tsun, the others knew that the soul of that cat's kittah had returned to the mysterious paradise of the gods.
The kittahs forever guarded and revered each of their sacred cats. Their descendants, known as Birman cats, look today just as Sinh did when he was transformed. Their fur is a misty gold, their paws white as snow, their eyes deepest sapphire, contemplative in times of peace but full of fire whenever danger threatens.
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