Vietnamese people believe that every creature has a soul and that mountain and sea genies really exist.
Whale Worshiping Shrine in Canh Duong village (Photo:qbtv.vn)
Coastal communities have been worshiping the sea genie and other water genies for thousands of years to express their gratitude for nature and their desire for a peaceful and prosperous life.
Their faith encourages people to endure all difficulties and rely on the sea for their livelihood. The whale worshiping ritual has been preserved by the people of Canh Duong fishing village in the central Vietnam province of Quang Binh for hundreds of years.
Canh Duong has long been known as a rich fishing village where the locals catch an abundance of fish, shrimp, and other sea creatures. They excel at seafaring and fishing and their whale worshiping ritual has many interesting features.
Ngo Xuan Duc comes to the Whale Worshiping Shrine every day to clean the shrine and offer incense to the whale genie. He has been doing this for several years.
He said “The villagers of Canh Duong fishing village were born to the sea, live by the sea and for 375 years have worshiped the whale genie, who they believe can give them a wealthy life.”
The shrine is associated with the legend of Mr and Mrs Whale who saved some fishermen from heavy storms and enormous waves before floating ashore at Canh Duong to die.
The evidence – two giant whale skeletons – the biggest and oldest in Vietnam, have been kept and worshiped at the shrine for 200 years. At the shrine’s gate are two big paintings of whales which remind locals to do good deeds to ensure themselves have a smooth and prosperous life. Before sailing out to sea, locals often offer incense to the genie to pray for a lucky trip.
Mr. Duc said “Locals found the first whale who swam ashore to die 9 years before a second whale did the same thing. We believe that this is a sacred place where Mr and Mrs Whale chose to rest in the afterlife. Generations of locals owe their livelihood to the sea and to the blessings of the genies, so at one point they decided to build a temple to worship the whale genies.”
Fishermen believe that the whale genies always watch over them and protect them from the dangers of the sea and help them overcome their difficulties. Locals often tell stories about a whale genie warning them in a dream about a future mishap.
Duc said “Ahead of storms or monsoons, whales often find a safe place to stay, commonly under a boat or ferry. Locals say those whales help balance their boat during strong winds or storms. They consider the whales their luck charms.”
Any time a whale floats ashore, locals believe that they are the lucky ones chosen to take care of the burial rites. They have built a sacred whale cemetery facing the sea. There are 24 graves, each marked with the exact time the whale floated ashore. Locals give these whales names like Marine General and Marine Fairy to show their respect and gratitude. They conduct burials for stranded whales and also other beached sea creatures, which they believe are the whales’ offspring looking for their ancestors.
Nguyen Thi Mai, a Canh Duong resident, has taken care of the whale cemetery for more than two decades.
She said “I believe so strongly in the whale genie’s power to safeguard fishermen that I voluntarily do the job of cleaning and taking care of the cemetery. On the first and the 15th day of every lunar month, I come here to offer fruits, flowers, and incense to the whale genie and pray for peace. Fishermen do the same before each voyage.”
On the 15th day of the first lunar month, villagers perform a whale worshiping ritual which has been preserved for a very long time. In the early morning, fishermen and boat owners gather at the Whale Worshiping Shrine to offer incense and other offerings to the Whale Genie.
Activities include a procession to the temple, an offering of incense, an oration, chanting, and a recreation of boat sailing on the land, an important ritual showing the locals’ gratitude for Mr and Mrs Whale. During the whale worshiping festival in Canh Duong village, the locals pray for good crops, happiness, peace, and favorable weather.
The inland sailing ritual takes place only in Canh Duong village. Inland sailing means raising the anchor, paddling, and moving the boat inland to simulate the life of the fishermen. The inland sailing ritual originated in the legends of whales who chose Canh Duong as a final resting place.
To prepare for the ritual, artist Le Thanh Loc, Head of the inland sailing club in Canh Duong village, and other members of the club spend a lot of time practicing to ensure each move will be performed quickly and strongly to symbolize the strength and good health of the fishermen.
Loc said “What I love most about the inland sailing ritual is its spiritual meaning which is embraced in the heart of every local. The ritual has two parts: chanting and sailing. We usually chant an ancient version which pays tribute to the Whale Genie who blesses locals in both good and bad times.”
The whale worshiping ritual, which reflects the cultural life of Canh Duong fishing village, also illustrates a popular Vietnamese saying that “When drinking water remember its source”. Worshiping an animal generation after generation expresses a desire to do good deeds so as to enjoy a peaceful life.