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Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

By Duc Hung   May 9, 2022 | 06:30 am PT
Residents of Cam Xuyen District in central Vietnam's Ha Tinh Province conducted a ceremony Sunday to seek blessings from whale deities for protection at sea, good weather and bountiful harvests.
Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

Xuan Bac Village residents in Ha Tinh's Cam Xuyen District gather at the Duc Ngu Ong shrine for the Nhuong Ban Whale Veneration Ceremony.

A representative of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism attended the ceremony and granted it official status as an national intangible cultural heritage.

The ceremony is held on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month to worship Nam Hai Nhan Ngu Ton Than, a whale deity.

In certain Vietnamese regions, especially central and southern coasts, the whale is worshipped as a deity who protects fishermen at sea.

Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

To the left of the shrine is a graveyard for hundreds of whales, considered a historical and cultural heritage of Ha Tinh since 2007.

Since early morning, people made offerings of flowers, incense and other items at the graves.

When a whale dies, a funeral is held at the shrine. Old whales, signified by a mark on their head, are called Duc Ca Ong (Holy Mr. Fish) if they're male and Duc Ca Ba (Holy Ms. Fish) if they're female.

For whales without the mark, people flip a coin three times to determine their gender. If it turns heads twice, it's a male, and if it turns tails twice, it's a female.

Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

Last Saturday night, a smaller ceremony was held at the shrine, with only local officials and organizers participating, making offerings of fruits, alcohol, water and betel.

Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

The festival, which is an extension of the ceremony, includes "ho cheo can", a traditional Vietnamese musical performance, inside the shrine’s premises. Hundreds come to witness the performance.

Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

The musical performance features lyrics simulating rowing nad paddling while praying for the deities’ blessings.

Hoang Ngoc Ly, 66, head of the Cam Nhuong Commune cheo committee, was the lead performer.

Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

Dancers in formation with paddles in hand mimic the rowing of boats. One person uses flags to maintain the rhythm and synchronize the team's singing and movements.

In the past, most of the dancers and singers were women, but more men have been participating of late.

Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

Duong Dinh Lieu plays the role of the ship owner in this year's performance. 10 other team members stand in two columns next to him, Lieu holds a wooden bell that is played as part of the performance.

Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

After the performance, an altar for the whale is carried through the village to the sea. The altar includes a small wooden boat with offerings like fruits and joss paper.

Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

A group of boats decorated with colorful flags are docked near the shore, waiting for the altar to arrive. It is floated on the water.

Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

Hundreds of people follow the altar from the shrine to the beach.

"The festival is a beautiful part of the people of the coast. I brought my children here and they were happy to learn another lesson about our cultural beliefs," said 35-year-old Tran Thanh, who'd come from Hanoi.

Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

After the offerings are released into the sea, the vessels parade a few rounds before returning to the shore.

Whale venerated as guardian at sea, benefactor on land

At 11 a.m., an organizer waits at the shore to receive the altar to finish and conclude the ceremony.

Nguyen Van Hung, chairman of Cam Nhuong Commune, said the festival goes beyond cultural beliefs. It is a valuable historical resource for researchers to learn about the life of the people in Ha Tinh's coastal areas, he said.

 
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