The Cham Whale Worship Cult (Save the Whale!), Phan Thiet, Vietnam, 4th May 2011

The Fin Whale in question is a 22 metre colossus and would have weighed 65 tonnes.  Hollow, just the bones you see.  It looks like something that escaped from the National History Museum.  To stand beside it and look at its eye sockets, beach ball in circumference, is to feel like an insignificant lump of flesh.  These creatures used to be a regular sight from Vietnam’s coastlines (all 3800kms of them!), now its a rarity.

This is the ‘Van Thuy Tu’ temple, or part of it, centre of an ancient cult that worships Whales (‘Le Cung Ca Ong’) in Vietnam.  This unique practice can be found all over Vietnam’s coast and fishing villages, but its most famous centre is here in the town of Phan Thiet.  This temple is the oldest in Vietnam, built in 1762 and in 1996 was made a national relic site.   The cult worship the Whale god (known as ‘Ngu Ong’ or ‘Mr Whale’) who represents divinity as the supreme deity of the sea and makes sacrifices to ‘Mau Ma’ the supreme feminine force, or Goddess of the Ocean.  Worshippers visit often and make offerings of garlands and incense, praying to the sea-god for increase fish yields, the return of souls lost at sea or safe passage.  The followers treat all large marine mammals (Cetaceans) and sharks with utmost respect and they are not hunted.

Vietnam has a complex and eclectic mix of spiritual practices and most revolve around ‘Ton Giao’ which represents Confucianism, Taoism and ancestor worship, with the Buddhist way of life at the centre of the belief system and society.  Local tribal animistic rituals are also combined which keep things interesting.  These ancient tribal practices were outlawed by the Communists until as recently as 1992 and spiritualism or ‘the supernatural’ is still outlawed in Vietnam, meaning the cult is viewed with ambiguity and suspicion by the authorities.  You can love Buddha, love Lao Tse, love Ho Chi Min (who also his own cult in the North), it’s all mixed and good.  Full of inclusive love and why not I say!  There are few boundaries or set rules here relating to worship.  It’s fresh again and open.

Thap Poshanu Cham Tower

The Whale cult predates all modern religions and came about at some time during the awesome Champa ( dynasty dating as far back as the 4th century.  This civilisation never found one cohesive centre, being in constant flux due to conquests by the mighty Khmers in Cambodia to the West and various Chinese and Mongolian invasions from the North.  The Chams maintained trade links with the Romans and Persians.   They survived until 1832, incredible longevity considering, when they were assimilated into Vietnamese society.

I visited the Thap Poshanu temples on a hillside above Phan Thiet which were built in the 6th century to worship Shiva and a local fire god.  There is still the lingam and yoni at the centre of the Shiva temple and the incense still burns at the altar.  The architecture is very similar to that of Bagan in Myanmar and many religious sites in India, which is incredible considering this is one of the most easterly points in South East Asia, nearly 4000 kilometres away from Delhi.

The temples, sat atop steep cliffs, are now surrounded by relics that are testament to Vietnam’s more recent history.  Burnt out and battered military bunkers and a pink concrete communist memorial overlooking the tempestuous South China Sea.  The Thap Poshanu Temples are a real treasure in a country that has lost most of its ancient sites through the wars that have ravaged the land and people.

Phan Thiet is a big fishing community.  In the day, the multi coloured boats are bunched together in the small brown rivers of the city.  Phan Thiet wooden boats are famous for there bright colours, which have evolved through time.  The fishermen used to paint eyes, fins and tails on the boats to ward of big fish.  Phan Thiet is also famous for its fish sauce (nuoc mam) and is fiercely proud of it.

Fish sauce is made by rotting small fish with salt and water in large wooden vats.  After letting the concoction ferment gently, the juice is then pressed out, the first press being the most refined and sought after.  Like olive oil.  Rules similar to that of wine production (Apppelations) are placed upon producers and there are many different styles and qualities to be had.  It is delicious (if an acquired taste) and makes a nutritious alternative to salt.  Phan Thiet streets are infused with the noxious aroma of rotten fish, but all for a decent condiment.

At night the fishing boats form a seemingly impenetrable line across the horizon, powerful halogen lanterns ablaze, resembling a distant coastline approaching this beach.  Capturing the oceans creatures by the tonne in a giant sweeping motion.  Judging by the fish in the local restaurants, sharks, moray eels, snakes, toads, giant lobsters (massive) and many types of beautiful clam (they have big tanks here, more an aquarium than a seafood restaurant) the sea is in reasonable condition in these parts and the Vietnamese eat it all.  But for how long?  I was not aware that Moray eel made good eating?  Poor things.  It also seems that being a small shark makes you exempt from ‘Ngu Ong’s’ protection.  Size matters.

Cau Ngu

The ‘Cau Ngu’ is the main festival in the Whale worshippers calendar.  It takes place once a year in early August and attracts large crowds of locals and tourists.  Followers dress in elaborate costumes, a large procession makes it way around town and dances are held in the streets.

If a whale, dolphin or shark carcass is washed ashore an elaborate ceremony ensues, similar in stature to that of a royal occasion.  With chanting and hypnotic drums, men dance on stilts and a full burial is given.  The people wear traditional dress and dance like dragons well into the night.  Women even go into a trance like frenzy of tears and mourning, to show the required respect for the divine beast.  The corpse is collected and placed in the Van Thuy Tu Temple and after a few years the bones are exhumed, paraded around town then place in a large glass storage area behind the altars.  There are over 100 examples of whale and ‘strange’ fish bones to be found in the temple.

In the past, fishermen tattooed their entire bodies, to scare away the fish if they fell into the water.  Which tattoos they chose I’m not sure, I’m guessing not the sailor staple of an anchor.  A mermaid may send mixed signals!  It’s difficult to imagine the profusion of fish and wildlife on the planet until recently.  I sometimes wonder what diving would have been like 100 years ago.  I met an old fisherman in the Philippines who told me that when he was a boy, the ocean was full of fish and life.  Full!  They didn’t have a diving mask, but they made a box and a window pane into a rudimentary viewing device.  He explained in-depth the vivid colours and endless shoals of fishies.  You have to be very, very lucky indeed to fall out of a boat onto anything nowadays.  Even if you wanted to and were covered with tattoos of the voluptuous Angel Fish (the sexiest fish by a nautical mile).

No angel

The temple is a small dusty place and I was shown around by a stooped old man with an oversized American Navy cap on.  Tiles were missing in the roof and beams of light regularly cut through the stale air.  Many areas looked semi-derelict and hardly thriving.  But in the hour that I was there I did see two groups of people visit and light a few votive incense. The old man occasionally showed me into rooms with only old dismantled wooden carts and piles of baskets inside.  There was a lonely Chinese looking dragon costume propped up against a wall, obviously waiting for the next Cau Nge.  The main sanctum contained effigies of plump looking men, some with the long hair and beards of the Han Chinese.  All lit with unbefitting red light bulbs.  I saw the Yin and Yang  symbol several times.  There were racks of ancient arms piled against a wall, spears and axes.  Really, I couldn’t make out what was going on and my guide didn’t seem to want to look at me, let alone try to explain what he was shrugging me in the direction of.  I felt a little lost.  As an attraction, unless you have a particular interest, there really is little to inspire or appreciate in the temple building or adornment.

Just standing beside these enormous bones gives me a deep sense of awe and wonder.  To actually see a 65 tonne Fin whale first hand off the bow of a jazzy fishing boat must be a truly life-affirming experience and surely worthy of veneration.

It makes sense to worship the ocean and its most majestic animals.  Most ancient cultures have done the same, the Inuits most notably.  Worship what gives you a sense of wonder and you cannot control.  Worship what keeps you alive and prosperous.  Brining the duality of adoration and fear, the constant human trait of nepotism creeping in eventually.  Have a party in the street dressed as dragons!  I like the Vietnamese inclusive approach, there is no ‘one’ way, not only ‘one’ true path, but many.

If we all reverted back to worshipping nature, moved closer to our animistic roots that pre-date all monotheism, would we find a better balance with Mother Earth?  If our Gods were the sun, the moon, the stars, trees, animals, mountains, rivers and oceans,  would we realise that ‘we’ are nature, not exclusive from it and are intrinsically responsible for its (our) future existence?  Would we remember ancient wisdom which has now been distorted and misinterpreted through the ages?  My heart would scream yes.

Big creatures, giving me big ideas.  Thank you ‘Mr Whale’.

 The Whale God is in serious trouble though, without immediate action, many species of Cetaceans will disappear forever.  There complete eradication from the oceans as a bi-product of industrialised fishing practices, will take thousands of other marine species with it if it carries on in these volumes.  Find out how to help these majestic creatures below.

Rock on the Sea Shepherd!:

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed” Mahatma Gandhi


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