The ideal Birman is a beautifully adorned cat with its long, silky fur, pointed pattern, brilliant blue eyes, and matching sets of pure white feet. This breed is popular with those who love the beautiful pointed pattern of the Siamese but dislike the supermodel thinness of today’s Extreme Siamese or the cobby body and foreshortened face of the show Himalayan. The Birman strikes a pleasing balance between the two, and combined with a personality that will keep you purring, the Birman makes a worthy companion to ailurophiles who worship their cats as a matter of course.
The Birman is elongated and stocky, with a strongly built body type, neither svelte nor cobby. The legs are medium in length and heavily boned, with large, round, firm paws. The tail is medium length, in pleasing proportion to the body. Adult males weigh approximately 9 to 15 pounds; adult females weigh approximately 6 to 10 pounds. No outcrossing is allowed.
The Birman’s distinctive head shape strikes a happy medium as well, and the face is neither flat like the Persian nor sharply pointed like the Siamese. The head is strong, broad, and rounded with a medium-length Roman nose, full cheeks, and a somewhat rounded muzzle. The forehead slopes back and is slightly convex, with a slight flat spot on the forehead between the ears. The jaws are heavy and the chin is strong and well-developed. The vivid, deep blue eyes are set well apart and are almost round with a sweet expression. The outer corners are tilted very slightly upward. The ears are medium in length, rounded at the tips, and almost as wide at the base as they are tall.
The Birman’s coat is one of its most outstanding features. The breed has a lush ruff around the neck that frames the face, and a bottle-brush tail that’s long and luxuriously soft to the touch. The coat is also longer on the tummy and hindquarters. The soft, silky fur is medium-long to long, but, unlike the Persian, lacks the extremely long, downy undercoat that would cause it to mat easily; a twice-weekly combing ensures tangle-free tresses.
The pointed pattern is available in a variety of hues in the color classes of solid point, lynx point (also called tabby point), and particolor point. In most registries, the Birman comes in seal point, blue point, chocolate point, lilac point (sometimes called frost point), red point, and cream point. The points are clearly defined with strong contrast to the body color, except on the white gloves. The body color is a paler shade of the point color, and should be even paler on the underbelly. Golden mist, a faint golden beige cast on the cat’s back and sides, is desirable in all point colors. Whatever the color, however, Birmans always have the pointed pattern, embellished by pure white feet.
Unique to the breed are their matching white gloves and laces: on the front paws the pure white gloving ends in front of the ankle, in an even line across the feet. On the back paws, white covers all the toes and may extend up the leg somewhat higher than the front; white continues up the back of each rear leg, forming laces. They should be evenly matched and end in a point before reaching the hock. Producing Birmans with perfectly matched white feet is the thorn in the paw of every Birman breeder.
Few cat breeds are surrounded by such an aura of mystery and enchantment as the Birman. No factual records exist about the origin of the Sacred Cat of Burma—instead, we have a lovely legend. What the legend lacks in scientific fact, it makes up for in charming fiction.
According to the story (which varies, depending upon the version), centuries ago in Burma, 100 sacred amber-eyed pure white cats with long, lovely hair lived in the monastery of Lao-Tsun. These cats carried the souls of departed monks through a process called transmutation. Some of the monks had souls so pure that they could not leave this world, so after they died, the goddess Tsun-Kyan-Kse transmigrated the monks’ souls into the sacred white cats. Upon the cat’s death, the monk’s soul attained Nirvana. Tsun-Kyan-Kse, the goddess of transmutation represented by a beautiful golden statue with glowing sapphire eyes, decided whose souls were worthy to be allowed to live on in the body of one of the sacred temple cats.
The head monk, Mun-Ha, so holy that the god Song-Hio himself braided Mun-Ha’s beard with gold, spent his entire life in service to the goddess Tsun-Kyan-Kse. The holy monk’s companion was a sacred temple cat named Sinh who was known for her kind and gentle nature—a sign that she was worthy company for Mun-Ha. Sinh formed a close bond with the head monk and faithfully joined him each evening when he prayed before Tsun-Kyan-Kse’s statue.
One day the temple was attacked. As Mun-Ha lay dying in front of the statue of Tsun-Kyan-Kse, faithful Sinh climbed onto his chest and purred to comfort and prepare him for his soul’s journey to the next life. When Mun-Ha died, his soul flowed into Sinh, and a miraculous transformation took place. The holy cat stood and faced the goddess, gazing up into the sapphire eyes of the statue of Tsun-Kyan-Kse. Sinh’s amber eyes changed to a brilliant sapphire blue. Her pure white coat changed to a golden hue, similar to the golden statue. Her face, ears, tail, and legs darkened to the color of the earth on which Mun-Ha lay. Where Sinh’s paws touched the dead monk, however, they remained a dazzling white, a symbol of Mun-Ha’s pure spirit. The next morning, the remaining 99 cats had been similarly transformed. Sinh did not move from the place of her companion’s death in front of the goddess’s statue and refused all food. In seven days she died, carrying the soul of Mun-Ha to Nirvana. From that time on, the world has been blessed with the Birman.
The legend isn’t what you’d call empirical data, but it’s a fascinating, romantic story. Fortunately, this beautiful breed is as enchanting as the tale surrounding its creation.
However the Birman came to be, it’s generally accepted that in 1919, a pair of Birman cats were transported to France, possibly from the temple of Lao-Tsun. The male, Maldapour, died on the ocean voyage. However, the female, Sita, arrived in France bearing the Birman’s future breeding stock—Maldapour had impregnated her before achieving Nirvana. Sita’s kittens became the foundation of the breed in Europe. In 1925, the breed was officially recognized in France; the name Birman is from Birmanie, the French word for Burma.
During World War II, the breed suffered setbacks due to the loss of breeding stock, and after the war only two Birmans remained. It took many years of careful crossbreeding (very likely to Persians and Siamese, and possibly other breeds) to re-establish the Birman, but by 1955 the breed had achieved its former glory. In 1959, the first Birman pair arrived in the United States, and the breed was officially recognized by the CFA in 1967. Today, all North American cat associations recognize the Birman for championship. According to CFA’s 2014 registration totals, the Birman is the fifth most popular longhair in North America, and the 15th most popular breed overall.