Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Death of Grandfather Maridjan

In 1930 some 1,300 people died when Gojung Merapi (Mount Merapi), Java's most active volcano, erupted.  Late in the morning of November 22, 1994 Merapi sent out what the locals call fearfully a wedus gembel (curly-haired sheep). This wedus gembel, a searing hot cloud of gas and ash, touched down in a small village near the mountain's southwestern slope and incinerated 66 people.  In 2006 Merapi exploded once more: while the ensuing eruption was sizeable only two died. Although reeling from an earthquake that had left over half a million people homeless, the Indonesian government was able to organize an evacuation that saved many lives.

In October 2010 Merapi began rumbling again: as seismologists warned this was going to be a major event, Indonesia began another round of evacuations.  Many of the farmers who lived near the volcano's fertile plains departed in haste.  Others chose to ride out the impending danger, afraid they might lose their few possessions to looters or confident that the spirits of the volcano would not harm those who paid their proper respects.

Among those staying behind was 85-year old Ki Surakso Hargo, better known as Mbah Maridjan, or Grandfather Maridjan. Thirty-five years earlier Maridjan had inherited his role as Mount Merapi's juru kunci, (spiritual guardian) from his retiring father.  In that role, he acted as mediator with the mountain, propitiating its spirits with a mixture of Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and indigenous prayers, offerings and propitiations.  He answered to Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, hereditary ruler of the province (and current elected governor), presiding with him over ceremonies to ensure the region remained fruitful and at peace.  As Maridjan explained it, “My job is to stop lava from flowing down. Let the volcano breathe, but not cough.”

During the 2006 eruption Maridjan led a procession of 100 villagers on a 54 kilometer (33 mile) march around local villages and left the local spirits offerings of apem (rice flour cakes) and other gifts to appease their anger. While local officials tried to take credit for the evacuations, many of the people believed that it was Maridjan's prayers that saved the day.  The brave juru kunci who refused to leave his post became famous throughout Indonesia, especially after he appeared in commercials promoting Kuku Bima Ener-G, a popular energy drink.

As the scope of Merapi's latest outburst became apparent, many of Maridjan's community left, including most of his family.  Once again Maridjan stayed behind. He knew how dangerous Merapi could be: he was badly burned during the 2006 eruption, spending five months in the hospital and leaving with permanent scars.  Yet he stayed at his post. To some he explained himself with an
old Javanese expression, "Nek aku mudhun, mengko diguyu pitik" or "the chickens would laugh at me if I run away from this place."  He was more serious with a close friend, saying "My time to die in this place has almost come, I can’t leave."

On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 28, the mountain erupted.  Maridjan was kneeling in a position of prayer when the 1,000°C (1,800°F) wind hit him.  His batik shirt and sarong were fused to his skin by the heat: white ashes covered his charred corpse. According to Broto Seno, commander of Yogyakarta’s search and rescue team, "There were no signs of pain. His body was prostrated rigidly, not like he suffered from the fire."

Indonesian public opinion on Maridjan's death is divided.  The Sultan denied that it was Mr. Maridjan’s job to face down an eruption, stating "His duty wasn’t to guard Merapi, but to carry out his obligation to the palace and conduct ceremonies."  Ahmad Susanto, a cleric from pan-Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, said that Mr. Maridjan’s death was a call from God for the Javanese to abandon superstition and join the steadily rising tide of Indonesians who are adopting a more orthodox form of Islam. Surono, Indonesia's chief seismologist, complained about Maridjan's hubris and recommended that people trust in science rather than superstition when dealing with volcanoes.  Others wondered how many villagers died because they followed Maridjan's example... including 13 people who were in Maridjan's home begging him to evacuate.

But even those who think Maridjan's sacrifice silly are impressed by his bravery. His earlier commercials have been refilmed as a tribute to his life and his death.  Speaking on behalf of the Yogyakarta Palace, Gusti Prabukusumo (the Sultan's brother) said "We had known long before it happened that Mbah Maridjan would be taken by Merapi. Now that he's gone, we have to choose a new gatekeeper soon." Although the current eruption has claimed over 250 lives (with more bodies sure to be found as the site cools) and although Merapi is certain to erupt again, this is unlikely to drive people away from the region.  As one Indonesian website notes:
But Merapi does not act always as "a bad guy", most of the time "it is a good guy", handsomely gives tremendous fertility to the land, stands strongly guarding the nature.