Worshipping guardian of the sea

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The Bac beach in central Vietnam has become a cemetery for more than 500 beached whales.

Traditionally, the whale is seen as a holy protector by local fishermen. The beach in Quang Nam Province, which boasts the UNESCO heritage site of Hoi An Town, is considered a holy place, where the whale comes to rest after many years of protecting them, the Saigon Tiep Thi newspaper said in a report late December.

The report quoted Tran Dinh Nam, a man of Tam Hai Island, as saying the beach is considered holy because the island has two beaches, but the other beach has never been privileged to receive "Ong." Locals call the whales "Ong" (Mister) as a respect.

Another local, Tran Tam Van, said some of the whales weighed several tons. "If they're injured, locals would bury them after they die. Otherwise, they would try to carry them back to the sea," Van said.

Each tomb is marked by two stones at either end.

The cemetery stands silent most of the time, except for a big worshipping ceremony held every year on the 20th day of the first lunar month.

The cemetery is ranked a provincial heritage but it has received little official care.

Tran Toan, 84 year old local and a master of whale worshipping rituals, said the worshipping tradition started around three hundred years ago on the request of King Gia Long (1762-1820), founder of Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnam's last feudal rulers.

It is said that the king and his army were caught in rough seas when they were instructed by an "Ong" to take refuge at the Bac beach. There was no water on the island, so the king prayed for rain and received directions from "Ong" to two spots where his soldiers found water underground.

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The commune, now home to around 10,000 people, still uses water from the two wells.

Toan, who has conducted the burial ceremony for around a hundred whales, said locals consider the whale a "god of the sea" and they have to hold a big ceremony, wearing funeral costumes, when one drifts on to the shore.

One year, a whale too big for locals to handle landed up on the Bac beach. People had to cover it for several years until all the flesh decayed, and they brought the skeleton to bury at the cemetery.

The locals believe that every year a whale drifts on to the shore, the sea would be gentle and the fishermen will be safe.

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