Tainan, Taiwan (CNN) — Along a narrow street in the Yanshui district of Tainan, in southwest Taiwan, an oddly dressed crowd of thousands huddle together.
Each wears a spacesuit-style costume cobbled together from junkyard finds: a motorcycle helmet, lowered visor, cloth wrapped around the neck, fire-retardant clothing and thick gloves. A cacophony of religious horn music rises as sedan chairs carrying statues of Guan Gong, the Chinese God of War, sway in the crowd like boats on choppy seas.
The helmeted mob begins to hop nervously. Stationed in between them are "beehives" of explosives waiting to be set on fire. Then someone does just that.
What starts with splutters of sparks soon erupts into a roar of flaming projectiles that hurtle directly into the crowd, or screech overhead.
Rockets killed plague, saved a village
According to local legend, the festival started in the late 19th century as a way of combating the dual disaster of a cholera and plague epidemic that was afflicting this trading port near the old capital of Tainan province.
Yanshui was at that time one of the most important maritime towns in Taiwan, due to its location on a now defunct system of canals. Disease ravaged the townsfolk for two decades, until they invoked the help of the god Guan Gong by setting off thousands of fireworks.
According to Lin Yi-ren, festival director and manager of the 17th-century Wu Temple, a local shaman summoned Guan Gong, also known as the martial god, to put an end to the suffering.
"The martial god agreed to visit, but told the shaman that he was to be greeted with fireworks," says Lin. In the end, claims Lin, sulfur in the fireworks killed the bacteria and the loud noise scared away the rats that carried the plague.
This is undeniably one of the world's most dangerous celebrations. The "beehives" are in fact launching towers densely stacked with small stick-like rocket fireworks. Some contain as many as 600,000.
They're called beehives because once the tower is lit, thousands of rockets shoot out at the same time like a swarm of bees being stirred from a nest. It's considered lucky to be struck by a rocket at the festival.
The small tightly wound tubes of cardboard thud into people in a trail of orange sparks. After a minute the firestorm is largely over and the air is heavy with sulfur. Just as the adrenaline begins to subside, another beehive is wheeled in from a side street and the explosive ritual begins again.
SpongeBob beehive brings good fortune
Yanshui fireworks: Not for the faint-hearted.
The event reaches its climax after sundown. Shen-Chi Chung, 56, and his family built two beehives for last year's celebration.
The smaller of the two, modeled on the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, was more than four meters square and loaded with 15,000 rockets. The larger, double the size, was a pirate ship.
"I chose these designs for my grandson and to make other little kids happy," says Chung, who runs a local events management business.
While SpongeBob took Chung and his family two weeks to build, the pirate ship required a full month of labor.
Chung admits that, beyond altruism and religious devotion, he has another motive for making the beehives -- both commercial and superstitious.
"I have friends who don't do this and things don't go smoothly with their businesses," says Chung. "The smaller beehive cost between NT$50,000 to NT$60,000 ($1,600 to $1,900) to build, but it's worth it."
Big finale: 1.4 million rockets
All of Chung's beehives are made of pine. Each section is 1.2 square meters in size with a depth of 20 centimeters. Each holds around 2,000 rockets.
According to festival director Lin, those who build beehives must pray and swear oaths to Guan Gong for three years in a row before they can participate in beehive construction.
Although beehive-making is often an all-male affair, woman can take part in their construction -- with certain caveats. For Chung's clan, "women can make beehives as long as they're not pregnant or if it's their time of the month.
"If any woman breaks these rules, the rockets will be much more harmful."
The first evening has a more local flavor, while tourists flock to the second night, when the fireworks grow to a crescendo.
Three huge beehives -- the first two crammed with 400,000 rockets and the final one with 600,000 -- are unleashed into a crowd wearing protective attire. Dignitaries look on from a stand behind a mesh screen around 20 meters high and 50 meters wide.
Think this is insanity? For Lin, today's festivals are tame compared to those of his youth.
"Old people like me aren't afraid of the fireworks," he says. "When I was a little boy we used to hold the sticks of the rockets and let them blast off right out of our hands.
"We didn't even wear any protection. We thought it was so much fun we'd run around naked."