This is the bizarre story of the coconut religion

This is the bizarre story of the coconut religion

I am not a religious man, but if I were, this would be my religion. I love coconuts. They are the best. Think about the all-encompassing power of the coconut. Think about the myriad of majestic ways to use this deceptive fruit.

You can use its oil to treat hair, to cook your food and to moisturise your skin or beard. But not only this, you can eat or drink the coconut. Coconut water is delicious. Coconut milk is delicious. Coconut, in its purest form, is delicious. Bow down to the coconut. Go on, bow down. BOW DOWN.

I know what you're thinking: "Man, I never knew about the power of the coconut!" and neither did I. I was you once, eating coconut products on the daily without realising its power. Frying my eggs in coconut oil, having coconut milk with my cereal, using dedicated coconut in my cooking. All this time I couldn't see what the coconut was giving me, all this time I was abusing the coconut.

Now, however, I understand the coconut. And now, after a bit of research, I've discovered that there are others like me; others that worship the coconut.

Floating near Phoenix Island on Vietnam's Mekong Delta lies the bizarre, decaying shell of what looks like an abandoned theme park. However, the story behind this colourful skeleton is a fascinating one. In the glory days of this dragon-emblazoned structure, it acted as the holy ground for a group of devout followers who would come here to pay respects to the holiest of holy objects: the coconut.

Just over 50 years ago, a group of turban-clad disciples decided to set up their temple here and existed on a diet that consisted simply of coconut flesh and coconut water. At the time of the group's inception, a war was wreaking havoc across the country and ceremonies took place among the explosive backdrop of cluster bombs and landmines.

George Dutton, a professor of Vietnamese history at UCLA asserts that it was this environment of violence and destruction that led many people to embrace faiths such as this in the first place, saying that the "growing dislocations and economic insecurities of warfare" forced locals to seek out alternative religious paths.

But while the war destroyed their homes and their lives, people found comfort in one thing: the coconut.

It may seem hard to believe that the coconut religion was a legitimate thing, but it actually managed to pull in an impressive membership of over 4,000 followers. At the forefront of the religion was Thánh Nam Nguyen, a man known to his disciples as Ông Đạo Dừa, or the Coconut Monk. An adventurous and charismatic leader, Nguyen was a well-educated man who climbed trees and regularly meditated.

After studying chemistry in France, Nguyen briefly worked within the world of science but swiftly decided to drop the lab coat and opt for a saffron robe instead. He undertook a vow of monastic silence under a tree in Vietnam's far-flung mountain region and opted to meditate alone for three years. It was during this time that Nguyen pioneered the coconut religion - a blend of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism and, of course, an infatuation and appreciation of coconuts.

Devotees of the religion refused to kill animals and instead they sourced their nutrition from coconut meat, milk, juice, oil and leaves that they sourced on the island. The core mission of the religion was to remove the three sources of human pain: words, thoughts and the body.

There is a debate among historians in which some claim that Nguyen's religion should be dubbed a lifestyle rather than a religion. But, through his love of the coconut and his message of peace, he is often regarded as one of the figures who played a part in the reunification of Vietnam. And, such was his popularity among his followers, Nguyen even made an ambitious run for president in 1971.

However, while the religion appeared to be a peaceful and simplistic one, it was disbanded in 1975 and labelled a cult by the newly victorious Communist government. The coconut monk was jailed for anti-government activities and his flock of followers dispersed; leading to the coconut kingdom going into disrepair and decaying.

While Nguyen's unique religion has all but faded from memory, one woman remains a firm follower. Tan Nguyen still tends to the religious shrine, but admits that she is more laid-back than her enigmatic predecessor - and that she sprinkles chilli, salt and a little pepper on her coconut meals.

While the coconut religion may be gone, its legacy lives on in its deserted, yet still beautiful, shrine. I, for one, will be looking to bring back this religion - anyone else fancy joining me? No?