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A whale of a tale

No 3, Vol.7, June - July 2015

Fishermen curry favour with the god of the sea

 
Villagers starting to held Nghinh Ong Festival on the sea for
reception ‘His soul’ at dawn

 
Villagers in the procession

 
Clockwise from top left: -; Decorative objects
in the festiva

 
A ritual after the procession

 
he procession in the festival with colouful flags and sound of drums
 
    
Art performances in the festival

The people on the shores of South Central Coast and South Vietnam have a custom of worshipping whales.
For generations, fishers revered whales as their ultimate god who always helped them in all their hardships amongst storms and waves.
According to ‘Great Vietnam History and Geography’, written during the Nguyen Dynasty: ‘Whales, or The Elephant Fish’, as the folks call them, have a round head with a hole on the forehead to blow out water, a black body without scales, and a shrimp-like tail. They are benevolent and often help seamen at risk.’ In ‘Southern Geography’, Trinh Hoai Duc also mentioned: ‘The deity is a fish... after setting the nets, fishers pray to Him and He would chase a school of fish into their nets. In ‘The Custom of Whale Worship in Khanh Hoa’ by Le Quang Nghiem records a story full of Buddhist mysticism, ‘Once, on a trip over the oceans, Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva felt pity for those who perish in the seas. He tore his robe into thousands of pieces, threw them into the sea and turned them into elephant fish to help those in need.’ ‘Festivities the Old Ways’ by Toan Anh also noted, ‘Seafarers always pray to whales when in trouble. The Binh Thuan fishers even have 12 prayers called the 12 big wishes, said to be passed down by Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, that the South Sea King (the whale) would hear and come to rescue them.
With that belief, the Whale became a Deity of Luck in the spiritual life along the shores. People call him by many respectful names such as His Bigness, God of Life, God of the Sea, South Sea God, and others. Nguyen kings knighted him as ‘The Venerable Sea God of Great Southern Family.’ In prayers, he is normally called Great King of Eastern Sea or Marine God of Southern Sea.
Fishing folks associate elephant fish with their happiness and prosperity. They spare no means to rescue whales washed ashore. If the whale is already dead, they wait till the flesh is decomposed completely, wash the skeleton with rice vodka, then transport it in a spiritual procession to the village temple to worship.
The day He died is celebrated every year. The first person that found His body has to mourn Him for 3 years as he would his parents. That person would be responsible for burning incense for Him every day, receiving offerings from his fellow fishers, and organizing yearly commemorations. People believe that the village that has the honour of receiving His body for a funeral will be safe and prosper.
In all village temples along Khanh Hoa shore, there is an altar for the South Sea Lord beside the ones for Past Fortune and Future Fortune. There are many such tombs distributed quite densely among the villages. According to the official statistics, there are 50 of them.
His Tomb is built not only for spiritual rituals, but also to serve as a centre for community activities. It is usually situated on a high, open ground next to an estuary facing the sea.
The custom of Elephant Fish worship is still alive today in the form of South Sea Lord festival, or Nghinh Ong (Whale Procession) Festival. The ritual is performed every year, but the festival can be held once a year or every 3 years, depending on the level of prosperity of the host village. The date may be the date of His death or it may be set by the village elders. A festival usually lasts 3 days, is attended by thousands, with many rituals and folklore cultural activities.
A festival has a ritual part and a festive part. The rituals include the Procession, His Reception, Prayer for Life, Prayer for the South Sea Lord, Royal Reception and Knighting Ritual. The festive part includes songs and dramas performed by professional artists invited by the organizers. This part lasts 3 days, and is sometimes active until 2 – 3 a.m. at night.

In 2014 the Nghinh Ong Festival of Khanh Hoa Province was named a national intangible cultural heritage by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
Nghinh Ong (Whale Procession) Festival varies from one place to another:
In Khanh Hoa Province, it is the 15th of twelfth lunar month.
In Binh Thuan Province, it is on the full moon of seventh lunar month.
In Vung Tau at Thang Tam temple, the festival held on 16th, 17th, and 18th of the eighth lunar month.
At Can Gio town of Ho Chi Minh City, it is from the 14th – 17th of eighth lunar month.
In Ca Mau Province, the festival takes place during 14th – 16th of second lunar month.
(Source: www.lehoi.cinet.vn, a website of Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Vietnam)

Text by Nguyen Man Nhien and photos by Van Thanh Chau
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