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Freshly painted cannons await the setting of the sun on the eve of Eid al-Fitr

Freshly painted cannons await the setting of the sun on the eve of Eid al-Fitr

The Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan, is a festive time in the Malaysian calendar. It’s traditionally a time for Malaysians to open their houses to neighbours and strangers alike to share good will, and even better food. But the Eid al-Fitr holiday wasn't always as easy as it is today. There was a time when tigers and herds of territorial elephants roamed the outskirts of villages, making the night-time trek between houses fraught with danger. It was under these conditions that the tradition now known as Meriam Buluh (bamboo cannon) was born.

Gunners packing away their cannons as the sun rises on a new day

Gunners packing away their cannons as the sun rises on a new day

For over 140 years, the village of Kampung Talang Masjid in the Malaysian state of Perak has maintained the annual tradition of Meriam Buluh. Back when the region was known only as Ber Talang, a term used for the process of clearing virgin jungle in preparation for farming, dangerous wild animals could be a problem for the local people. A non-violent solution was found in the form of termite mounds, which dotted the landscape.

According to Ahmad Basni Baharom, one of Kampung Talang Masjid’s older residents, early Malay settlers found the termite mounds could be hollowed out to accommodate half of a hardened coconut shell filled with hot kerosene. The termite mounds would be lightly sealed for a short time, allowing volatile gases from the kerosene to build up before a flame was introduced to the inside of the mound. The resulting explosion was loud enough to frighten off any nearby predators and allow the local Malays to travel between houses in safety. These original cannons were known as Meriam Tanah or Earth Cannons.

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Farhan lights one of the bamboo cannons

Farhan lights one of the bamboo cannons

As more farmland opened up around Kampung Talang Masjid, the termite mounds became scarcer, as did the wild animals that first inspired the use of the Meriam Tanah. Gradually, lengths of bamboo, easier to source and modify for use as cannons, became a popular replacement for the dwindling supply of termite mounds and inspired the more popular name of Meriam Buluh. Eventually the cannons were no longer a necessity, but the practice of firing the Meriam Buluh on the eve of Eid al-Fitr continues to this day.

Now constructed from steel pipes, the Meriam Buluh has become a night-long celebration of Malay culture and religion, open to people of all ages and backgrounds. Azmawi Farhan Azhari, a young local who grew up in Kampung Talang Masjid watching his elders fire the Meriam Buluh every year, says he “always wanted to be part of one of the cannon teams. Every young boy from here does.”

Spectators watch as the canons fire across the dark rice fields

Spectators watch as the canons fire across the dark rice fields

Farhan is now part of one of six teams that fill the dark rice fields with flashes of orange flame and ear-ringing explosions that echo off the nearby hills. Hundreds of visitors are drawn to the event every year, bringing a festive atmosphere to the evening as families shuffle along the narrow village laneways, visiting each of the six teams of cannons.

By 3 am the crowd thins significantly, but the 72 cannons don’t miss a beat. As the sky begins to brighten, only the cannon crews are left in the rice fields, fuelled by a mix of coffee, cigarettes and energy drinks. The only break in cannon fire comes with the dawn prayers, which the village roosters take full advantage of to be heard crowing before the drum of the cannons drowns them out again.

One of the teams fires their cannons in the distance

One of the teams fires their cannons in the distance

Finally, with the sun sitting just above the tops of the broad leaf tropical trees on the eastern horizon, one by one the cannons fall silent. Farhan and his team, the sixth generation of gunners since the original Meriam Tanah were first heard in these same fields, pack away their modern steel cannons for another year before trudging home. Despite the exhaustion, the faces of all the young men involved shine with an inner pride at being part of a tradition, started by their ancestors and to be carried on by their children.