Yogyakarta. Indonesia sits squarely on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and as such, the country plays nervous host to a string of active volcanoes.
Mount Merapi, which towers 2,968 meters above Yogyakarta, is the most active of them all. Mbah Marijan, 83, holds the distinction of being the “gatekeeper” of Mount Merapi after being appointed by the sultan to “mediate with the spirits of the mountain.”
“My job is to stop lava from flowing down. Let the volcano breathe, but not cough,” he says.
“That’s my wish, but God is the only one who controls life. I’m a simple man. I’m no cleric. To call me a leader is not right.”
He refuses to have his photo taken and instead directs visitors to a wall of paintings and caricatures of himself. One shows him holding a giant key in front of the volcano. Marijan is a third-generation gatekeeper.
“My father showed me how the ceremonies must be held and how to read the signs of the volcano,” he said.
“I was about 50 when my father died and the sultan said I would be the next gatekeeper.”
Much more than just a mountain to residents, Merapi is seen as a representation of the sacred Mt. Meru of Hindu myth and is believed to host Javanese spirits.
The sultan, though a devout Muslim, pays homage to these primal forces in yearly rituals. And Marijan, it is believed, enjoys an intimate spiritual relationship with Merapi.
Since he became Gatekeeper, Merapi is yet to leave the slopes of the volcano.
“What would be the use of going anywhere else?” he said. “An uneducated person like me travelling! That would just be a headache.”
In 2006, as thick, sulphurous clouds billowed from the crater and the government ordered everyone to evacuate, Marijan was determined to stay. He performed prayers and insisted there was nothing to worry about.
“The government usually gets it wrong,” he said.
“Don’t do things too quickly, you have to think first because this community has two warning systems: one from the government and one from the gods, and the gods hadn’t given the right signs. If I came down it meant I was only protecting myself. If I stayed, it was for the country.”
However, in 2006, three people were killed by a burst of superheated gas from the crater, and sixteen years ago, sixty people at a wedding party died similar deaths. Only one man survived that incident.
“At the time I was boiling water in the kitchen when the hot clouds from the volcano came,” Marijan says.
“I survived, but was burnt and the building collapsed on me. I was in the hospital for five months. I had a lot of operations and now my hands, which were seriously burnt, look like this,” he says, holding up fingers that are almost melted together.
But time is taking its toll on Marijan. During the last volcano ritual he was too fragile to oversee the ceremony, and was replaced by a fill-in team. His age and increasing poor health has sparked talk of who his successor will be.
Keen to keep the role among the family, his eldest son, Asihono, has volunteered to take on the role.
But Mbah Marijan ever the team player and strict traditional conformist, is reluctant to appoint anyone just yet.
“It’s not for me to decide,” he says. “It’s something that will be decided by the powers above.”
Taken from The Jakarta Globe.
This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesian radio news agency KBR68H. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.asiacalling.org.