Whale Worshipping Custom of South Central Coast Fishermen

Most coastal villages in South Central have whale worship. Even those located in inland areas also have whale worship temple. This shows that whales play an important role in the spiritual life of the inhabitants of the South sea.

According to Dai Nam Nhat Thong Chi (Dai Nam Comprehensive Encyclopedia), the whale was known as Duc Ngu (Mr. Whale): "Duc Ngu has a round head and a blowhole in the forehead, and is black, no scales. He is generous and helpful, always rescued people who are stranded while travelling on the sea. In the early date of King Minh Mang, the King named the whale “Nhan Ngu”, and then the whale was renamed (Duc Ngu) in Tu Duc date. This fish is sacred in Nam Hai (South China sea), but not in other areas”

A temple worshipping Ca Ong (whale)

Good genius of the sea

If Western countries consider the whale a big resource of high economic value, the people in Southeast Asia nations have seen whales as an unknown savior. Whale is a good genius of the sea that they are always respectful. Whale is also respectfully called with many formal names like Mr. Khơi, Mr. Lộng, Mr. Nam Hai.... Because of the above- mentioned facts, whales in Southeast Asia are not killed; what is more, the awareness about protecting whales is also raised to be a discipline that most people doing fishing trade must follow.

A procession in Whale worship ritual

So far, there has been many legends, anecdotes, folk tales related to whale worship tradition. Legend has it that the whale is the embodiment of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, who once incarnated to save mankind from sufferings. He transformed into whales (Mr. Nam Hai) and patrolled the South China Sea. One day, on a lotus, he glanced at South China sea, and he could not help being heart-broken when seeing the multitude of creatures encountering the tempest, having perished because of storms while the victims were just gentle poor fishermen who did fishing trade to feed themselves.

Before that heartbreaking scene, the Bodhisattva took off the cassock, torn it into small pieces and threw into the ocean surface. Each piece, under the Bodhisattva wish, turned into a whale whose duty was to rescue the fishermen in distress from the storm over the ocean. Since then, the whale is the benefactor of the people living on the sea fishing boats.

Whale is the embodiment of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva
However, whale’s stature at that time was relatively small, not strong enough to confront and withstand the storm; therefore, the Avalokiteshvara borrowed the skeleton of Ong tuong (elephants) in the forests and gave the whales, thus the whale were powerful enough to confront the power of the ocean. Likewise, the fish is named whale- literally as elephant fish (since the skeleton was borrowed from the elephant and a wale is as big as an elephant).

Another story recounted that, in about 1799, while Nguyen Anh was being defeated by Tay Son army, and was running away to Siam (Rattanakosin Kingdom) by the sea, he met a big storm. The storm made the boat wobble, but right after that, a whale appeared, lifted the boat, and took it to the shore, finally, Nguyen Anh got out of danger. In 1802, Nguyen Anh acceded to the throne, took the title of Gia Long. Grateful to his rescue whale, the King ordained the whale Nam Hai General (the General of the South China Sea).

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