25 March 2011

Temple of the Whale

I came to Mui Ne because it’s on the beach. I wanted a place to write and relax. Most days I don’t leave the hotel grounds except to walk on the beach or go for a meal close by. There really isn’t much to see right in my neighborhood other than tourists and tourist related industry. So I was rather surprised that the tourist map I had bought contained more than just advertisements for local restaurants and clubs. There are several places of interest within a 30 minute bus ride. Today’s trip was to the Whale Temple.

The local bus let me off within two blocks of the little temple, located in Phan Thiet, the “big” city at the other end of the bay.

According to the blurb on the tourist map, the Thuy Tu Temple was built in 1762 by fishermen to worship the whale. It goes on to say that there are nearly 100 skeletons at the temple, more than half of which are 100-150 years old. It mentions a burial ground within the temple which has been used for beached whales. And that’s about all I knew before I got there, and pretty much what I knew after I left. At times like these I really, really want a translator. What could be more fascinating than a place where whales are worshiped and have been for centuries?
Since I was unable to talk to the source, I had to rely on the internet and got a bit more information.
Worship of the Whale God is a religion practiced by coastal fisherman in Vietnam and dates back to at least the early Khmer and Cham cultures. They believe that this god protects them while at sea and will guide them to shelter in a storm. Whales are highly revered creatures in Vietnam and have never been hunted here. If a dead whale or dolphin washes up on the coast, there is an elaborate ceremony performed to mourn and honor the mammal. It is then buried and three to five years later exhumed; the remains then carried to the temple to be worshiped. From what I have found, it seems the last whale funeral was in 2002. Once a year, around August, there is a large festival in honor of the whale and to ask for protection on the seas in the coming year.

I arrived at the small temple and was ushered in by a gentleman collecting the nominal entrance fee. From there one walks into the room which holds the intact skeleton of a fin whale. A placard stated that it was 22 meters long, (aprox 67 ft) and I believe it said it weighed 65 metric tons. I think this whale passed on to the great ocean in the beyond, either 50 or 100 or 150 years ago. (I’m not sure that I understood the man at the temple, or if the internet information was accurate.)

There were a few local people visiting the whale. I saw a woman reach out and touch the fin of the skeleton. Being raised in a culture where you are never allowed to touch a museum exhibit, it bothered me a little. But then I noticed a young man, clearly not a tourist, doing the same thing and I believe they were communing with the whale’s spirit, not desecrating its remains.

From there I walked over to the temple proper. Music and chanting was blaring from loudspeakers that came from a small room to the left where men in bright blue costumes were praying.

After making sure it was all right to enter, and then if it was ok to take pictures, I stepped into the first room with its central alter in golds and reds. There were also smaller ones on the sides. A few older folks sat around the edges and some others were lighting incense and praying. I did try to ask about it all, but my limited Vietnamese was not going to work. One gentleman guided me up to the alter. When I saw the donation box, I took out some money and put it in, then pointed to the incense. He kindly took out three sticks, lit them for me, and showed me where to stand. I said a few blessings for the whale god and for my mother, who loved whales. When he saw that I had finished, he took the burning incense and placed in the pot on the alter. Then he mimed that I should fold my hands in front of myself and bow.

This room led to a small passageway that held the remains of whales gone by. Again, I couldn’t ascertain just how many creatures were stored there. I then walked into the back room that also opened out onto an ally.

Another alter covered the wall facing away from the ally. In front of it, and out onto the street, tables were set for some sort of lavish luncheon. I had no idea if this was a weekly affair or if it was some special occasion. In a room to the right, women were preparing platters of food while young men waited outside, later to deliver the food to the tables. When people started to arrive for their meal, I left the temple.

When I first arrived I had noticed that across the street was a workshop of people making those little round rowboats that one sees all over Vietnam. They are completely constructed of woven bamboo. I had wanted to take pictures but again, the instinct to be non-intrusive took over. As I walked out of the temple and again looked across to the boat shop, I saw that there was a tiny drinks café set up in a courtyard adjoining it. Perfect; I’d buy a drink and hope I could talk to some people and take pictures.

I got my drink and sat at the table watching a man making lamps out of pieces of bamboo. He pointed to a fantastic mural on the wall across the way and said he had painted it. Then he excused himself as he was already late for the prayer service across the street at the temple.

His wife stayed around and introduced me to the five dogs she had, all very friendly. When I finished I got up and walked over to takes pictures of the boats. Being that it was lunch time and temple time, no one was actually working on the boats. I will have to go back another time.

I think it will be a mission of mine to find someone associated with the whale religion and who also speaks English. I really need to know a lot more about this wonderful faith.