Monday, January 18, 2010

Jumping Cat Monastery

Nga Phe Kyaung is one of thousands of monasteries in Myanmar and dozens on Inle lake. It's a place of reflection for the people living in the nearby village. In recent years it has become famous - not for meditation or spiritual guidance, but for cats that jump through hoops. About twenty years ago, a monk with a bit of time on his hands, decided to train a few of the cats. For some reason, cats are found in just about every monastery in South East Asia.

What started as an idle hobby for one monk soon became a movement as more and more cats earned their meals by leaping through a hoop. As word got out, more tourists started to visit the monastery to watch the show. As part of Ywama village, the only way to get to monastery is by boat.

I arrived at a particularly good time. A meditation session with the head monk was in progress. I quietly made my way to the back of the crowd. The villagers, mostly women, were seated on a the floor in front of an open space before the monk. He was intoning and chanting and the congregation sat with heads bowed. On the vinyl-tiled floor about a dozen young cats sat as if deep meditation.

The session the monk broke up around the time a tourist laden boat arrived. As the villagers offered their thanks to the monk and chatted as they wandered out, the tourists sat along the wall and waited. A tour guide spoke to a woman and she began to organize the feline circus.

She shook a small can of dry food and the cats approached. It didn't take much effort to get them to jump. She mostly organized them so they would each get a turn and rewarded the small group whenever a cat leaped through the wire hoop she held out. The audience applauded every effort. The cats were primarily interested in eating. Once the cats had completed their show, everyone hung around to meet the performers. Like most temple cats, they were not particularly friendly and rebuffed every attempt to pet them.

On my last trip I managed to get some spectacular shots of the show, but this time I created a video, so no shots of cats in action. Not that they were particularly active. A few years ago, the monk who directed the cats had them jumping a lot more. Those cats were also more mature. These cats were quite young. I learned that the cats had all died a few years ago and the monastery had to train a new batch. You'd think it would be a bit frivolous, but the monastery was well aware of the draw of the cats and the tourist dollars they bring. In addition to the donations, a sizable tourist market was now established on the monastery grounds.

I asked a monk about another monk I had met on my last trip. It turns out that he had left the order. That's not particularly unusual, most Buddhist monks may serve only for a few years and go back to secular life.

The cats, on the other hand, serve the order for life (at least one of nine, presumably).

See larger images here.

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