The Gods Must Be Restless

Written by Andrew Marshall

Posted on 1 January 2008

The Gods Must Be Restless


Living in the shadow of Indonesia’s volcanoes

By Andrew Marshall  Photographs by John Stanmeyer/VII

ALL hell is about to break loose, but Udi, a 60-year-old farmer from the village of Kinarejo on the Indonesian island of Java, will not budge. Not even though a mere three miles (five kilometers) separates the smoldering peak of Mount Merapi from Kinarejo. Not even though columns of noxious gas and the nervous tracings of seismographs signal an imminent explosion. Not even though the government has ordered a full-scale evacuation. “I feel safe here,” he says. “If the Gatekeeper won’t move, then neither will I.”

Merapi is a natural-born killer. Rising almost 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) over forests and fields, it ranks among the world’s most active and dangerous volcanoes. Its very name means “fire mountain.” An eruption in 1930 killed more than 1,300; even in less deadly times, plumes drift menacingly from the peak. Some of the surrounding area, warns a local hazards map, is “frequently affected by pyroclastic flows, lava flows, rockfalls, toxic gases and glowing ejected rock fragments.” As the volcano’s rumbling crescendoed in May 2006, thousands fled the fertile slopes and settled reluctantly into makeshift camps at lower, safer altitudes. Even the resident monkeys descended in droves.

Not Udi and his fellow villagers, who take their cues from an octogenarian with dazzling dentures and a taste for menthol cigarettes: Mbah Marijan, the Gatekeeper of Merapi. Marijan has one of the more bizarre jobs in Indonesia, or anywhere else, for that matter. The fate of villagers like Udi and of the 500,000 residents of Yogyakarta, a city 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the south, rests on Marijan’s thin shoulders. It is his responsibility to perform the rituals designed to appease an ogre believed to inhabit Merapi’s summit. This time, the rituals seem to have fallen short. The warnings grow more urgent. Volcanologists, military commanders, even Indonesia’s vice president beg him to evacuate. He flatly refuses. “It’s your duty to come talk to me,” he tells the police. “It is my duty to stay.”

Marijan’s behavior might seem suicidal anywhere else, but not in Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,500 islands that straddles the western reaches of the hyperactive Ring of Fire. It’s a zone of geophysical violence, a juncture of colliding tectonic plates that loops more than 25,000 miles (40,200 kilometers) around the Pacific. Geography has dealt Indonesia a wild card: Nowhere else do so many live so close to so many active volcanoes—129 by one count. On Java alone, 120 million people live in the shadow of more than 30 volcanoes, a proximity that has proved fatal to more than 140,000 in the past 500 years.

Death by volcano takes many forms: searing lava, suffocating mud, or the tsunamis that often follow an eruption. In 1883, Mount Krakatau (often misspelled as Krakatoa), located off Java’s coast, triggered a tsunami that claimed more than 36,000 lives. The name became a metaphor for a catastrophic natural disaster.

For Marijan, though, an eruption is not so much a threat as a growth spurt. “The kingdom of Merapi is expanding,” he says, with a nod at its smoldering peak. In Indonesia, volcanoes are not just a fact of life, they are life itself. Volcanic ash enriches the soil; farmers on Java can harvest three crops of rice in a season. Farmers on neighboring Borneo, with only one volcano, can’t.

On a less earthly plane, volcanoes stand at the heart of a complicated set of mystical beliefs that grip millions of Indonesians and influence events in unexpected ways. Their peaks attract holy men and pilgrims. Their eruptions augur political change and social upheaval. You might say that in Indonesia, volcanoes are a cultural cauldron in which mysticism, modern life, Islam, and other religions mix—or don’t. Indonesia, an assemblage of races, religions, and tongues, is riveted together by volcanoes. Reverence for them is virtually a national trait.

If the Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation, the government agency that keeps eight seismograph stations humming on Merapi, represents modern science, Marijan, the Gatekeeper of Merapi, is Indonesia at its most mystical. When a Dutch hiker went missing on the volcano in 1996, Marijan reportedly made the thick mist vanish and found the injured hiker in a ravine.

It is often hard to distinguish the kind of volcanic spasm that builds toward a convulsion from the seismic restlessness that settles back into quiescence. But monitoring technology has grown more sophisticated. Overnight, government volcanologists have raised the alert to its highest level. The lava dome might collapse at any moment. Hasn’t Marijan heard? The entreaties leave Marijan unimpressed. The alerts are merely guesses by men at far remove from the spirit of the volcano. The lava dome collapse? “That’s what the experts say,” he says, smiling. “But an idiot like me can’t see any change from yesterday.”

INDONESIA’S MOTTO, “Bhinneka tunggal ika—Unity in diversity,” speaks to some 300 ethnic groups and more than 700 languages and dialects. The government officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism, but mysticism riddles all faiths and bares their animistic roots. Sumatra, the vast island northwest of Java, is home to the Batak people, converted to Christianity by European missionaries in the 19th century. Yet many still believe the first human descended from heaven on a bamboo pole to Mount Pusuk Buhit, an active volcano on the shores of Lake Toba. The Tengger, Hindus who live around Mount Bromo in East Java, periodically climb through choking sulfurous clouds to throw money, vegetables, chickens, and an occasional goat into the crater. On Flores, the Nage, Catholics like most on that island, are buried with their heads toward Mount Ebulobo, whose cone fills their southern horizon.

Likewise, on largely Hindu Bali, volcanoes are sacred, none more so than 10,000-foot (3,000 meters) Mount Agung, its highest peak. It is said a true Balinese knows its location, even when blindfolded, and many sleep with their heads pointing toward it. In 1963 a catastrophic eruption of Mount Agung killed a thousand people. Others starved to death after ash smothered their crops. “The very ground beneath us trembled with the perpetual shocks of the explosions,” wrote an eyewitness. Yet what once was spoken of as divine wrath is now seen as a gift. The rock and sand thrown up by the eruption built hotels, restaurants, and villas for hordes of foreign tourists, who started arriving in the 1970s. Despite attacks by Islamic terrorists in 2002 and 2005, which killed more than 220 people, tourism remains Bali’s biggest industry. And by the grace of Agung and its neighbor, Mount Batur, houses that once nestled in fields of chilies and onions now overlook quarries filled with workers shoveling volcanic sand into trucks.

Not everyone has been lifted by the rising tide of tourism. Seven hundred people in the village of Trunyan squeeze into a mountain stronghold near Mount Batur. Their ramshackle houses cling to a sliver of land along a lake in a vast caldera. The villagers fish in dugout canoes and grow crops on the steep shoulders of the caldera. The village’s creation myth explains its isolation, telling how a wandering Javanese nobleman fell in love with a goddess who lived in a giant banyan tree. She agreed to marry him, but only if he covered his tracks so nobody else could follow him from Java.

While tourism has brought breakneck development to the rest of Bali, Trunyan’s cherished isolation now spells economic marginalization. Elders watch helplessly as a younger generation traces the same path to Bali’s towns and cities as Batur’s rock and sand. “There are no jobs here, no opportunities,” admits Made Tusan, a teacher at Trunyan’s only school.

As if economic malaise weren’t enough, a recent catastrophe added to the litany of woes. A giant banyan tree that had shaded the village for centuries crashed to the ground during a storm, flattening the village temple, though miraculously sparing the holy statue of Dewa Ratu Gede Pancering Jagat, the local deity.

A village elder, I Ketut Jaksa, blames the disaster on Balinese politicians and businessmen. He “won’t name names,” he says guardedly, but he insists they angered the volcano deity by praying to advance their careers while ignoring Trunyan’s growing disrepair. Others blame the new road, which recently connected the village to the rest of Bali, destroying its isolation and leaving it open to spiritual contamination.

IN INDONESIA, it’s a given that human folly can trigger natural disasters. Eruptions, earthquakes, even a toppling banyan tree, have long been regarded as cosmic votes of no-confidence in a ruler—a fact of which the country’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is painfully aware.

Two months after the president’s inauguration in October 2004, an earthquake and tsunami struck Aceh Province on Sumatra, claiming 170,000 lives. A quake hit Sumatra three months later, killing perhaps 1,000. Then Mount Talang erupted, forcing thousands of villagers to flee their homes. A chain text message flashed across cell phones, imploring Yudhoyono to perform a ritual to stop the calamities. “Mr. President,” it read, “please sacrifice 1,000 goats.” Yudhoyono—a former general with a doctorate in agricultural economics—publicly refused. “Even if I sacrificed a thousand goats,” he announced, “disasters in Indonesia will not end.”

They didn’t. There were more eruptions—a statistical certainty in the volcano-studded country. One catastrophe followed another: a quake, a tsunami, floods, forest fires, landslides, dengue fever, avian influenza, and a mud eruption. Trains derailed, ferries sank, and after three major plane crashes—one at Yogyakarta airport—an editorial in the Jakarta Post advised air travelers to pray.

The streak of tragedy haunting the president could be explained, it was said, by his inauspicious birth date and by the name of his vice president, Jusuf Kalla, which bore an unhappy resemblance to that of a man-eating monster called Batara Kala. Amid renewed calls to perform a ritual to dispel the run of bad luck, President Yudhoyono and his cabinet joined a mass prayer at Jakarta’s grand mosque. “Nothing unusual,” insisted his spokesman, but the high-profile gathering was clearly meant to allay national fears.

Other politicians appeal directly to the spirits. Before running for vice president, one candidate sneaked off to worship at a volcano near Lake Toba, where there is reportedly a helipad for visiting VIPs. The spirits must not have been listening: He was defeated. Another time, members of the Indonesian National Unity and Fusion Party gathered high on Merapi’s slopes for a ritual-laced political rally, even though the volcano was on the brink of erupting. Led by Arief Koesno, a portly ex-actor who believes he is the reincarnation of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, the ceremony started with the slaughter of nine goats and ended with party members dancing wildly in a circle.

“After this ceremony,” Koesno declared, “I am certain Merapi will not erupt.” Three days later, it did. In the smoking caldera of Indonesian politics, belief in the supernatural persists among even the most modern, high-ranking leaders. “Indonesian politicians are hypocrites,” says Permadi, a professional soothsayer and member of parliament. “They say they believe in Islam, in the Holy Koran. They also claim to be rational, because many are educated in America. But in their hearts, they still believe in mysticism.”

Even President Yudhoyono, claims Permadi, has conducted a ritual atop Mount Lawu, a revered Javanese volcano. The persistence of mysticism also explains why, when campaigning for office, many politicians make it a point to pay their respects to Mbah Marijan, the well-connected Gatekeeper of Merapi.

AS THINGS HEAT UP around Merapi, dozens of reporters flock to cover the standoff starring the immovable Marijan, Merapi’s first media-age Gatekeeper. Soon, his face and the words “President of Merapi” adorn T-shirts all over Yogyakarta. To raise funds for his impoverished Kinarejo neighbors, he appears in a television advertisement for an energy drink.

Marijan, who inherited his job as Merapi’s caretaker from his father, is paid the equivalent of a dollar a month by the kraton, as the sultan’s high-walled palace in Yogyakarta is known. In traditional Javanese cosmology, the kraton sits on an invisible line between Mount Merapi and the nearby Indian Ocean. The sultan, a palace publication explains, is a “divinely chosen person” whose coronation is preceded by “a supernatural message.” Along with the everyday business of governing Yogyakarta, the sultan is also responsible for placating a powerful sea goddess called Ratu Kidul, and Merapi’s guardian ogre, Sapu Jagat.

One morning, soldiers arrive. “I don’t want to leave,” Marijan tells them with all the firmness his creaky voice can convey. “Maybe I’ll leave tomorrow. Maybe the day after tomorrow. It’s up to me.” Then he heads for the village mosque. Marijan’s duties may include mollifying a volcano-dwelling ogre. But he is also a devout Muslim who prays five times a day.

Two days later, the lava dome collapses. Traffic grinds to a halt in downtown Yogyakarta as motorists gape at the scorching avalanche of rocks rushing down Merapi’s western flank—away from Marijan’s village. Thanks to the timely evacuation, nobody is hurt.

Antonius Ratdomopurbo, director of the Volcanological Research and Technological Development Agency in Yogyakarta, is visibly relieved. “Merapi isn’t a big volcano, but it’s heavily populated. Many people were killed in 1930 simply because they were too close.” Marijan has just been lucky, he says. A month later, the lava dome collapses again, this time to the south, and two rescue workers perish under six feet (two meters) of hot ash. Again, fortune—or is it the volcano deity?—spares Marijan’s village. Does the Gatekeeper understand anything about the science of volcanoes? “I don’t know,” replies Ratdomopurbo with a tight smile. “You ask him.”

In his stubborn adherence to duty, Marijan has gone head-to-head not only with the authorities but also with his own boss, Hamengku Buwono X, the sultan, who backed the government’s call for an evacuation.

Hamengku Buwono X—the name means “sustainer of the universe”—heads a dynasty that dates back to the 18th century. His official portrait shows him in full Javanese court attire, a curved dagger tucked into his magnificent batik sarong. His everyday wear is an impeccably tailored dark suit—preferably Armani. In his office, during an interview, he puffs on a fat Davidoff cigar. A large painting of a volcano hangs on the wall behind him. “Not Merapi,” he says dismissively. “Fuji.”

Though tradition requires he employ Marijan, Hamengku Buwono X, a law graduate, does not believe in volcano-dwelling spirits. He is a progressive Muslim who has urged Yogyakartans to consider Merapi’s eruptions from a scientific perspective. “A great nation cannot be built on pessimistic myths,” he believes.

The relationship between the sultan and Marijan is uneasy, to say the least. The two inhabit opposite poles: the modern sultan versus the mystical Gatekeeper. Marijan tells reporters he will evacuate if ordered by the sultan—but he doesn’t mean the current ruler. His sultan is the much loved Hamengku Buwono IX, father of Hamengku Buwono X, who appointed Marijan as Gatekeeper and who died almost 20 years ago. “I follow the ninth sultan,” he says. “He was the man in the kraton last time I visited.”

In Marijan’s opinion, the current sultan’s biggest mistake is allowing businessmen to strip Merapi of millions of cubic feet of rock and sand. “He is not the sultan,” says Marijan witheringly. “He’s just the governor.”

Marijan is not alone in his disapproval. Some in Yogyakarta accuse Hamengku Buwono X of turning this cultural capital into a city of shopping malls and of spending too much time on the golf course. They yearn for the comfort of ancient rites and criticize the sultan for neglecting ceremonies his father routinely attended. In 2006, the sultan was conspicuously absent from an annual ritual to bless offerings for the ogre Sapu Jagat and the sea goddess Ratu Kidul. The offerings—which include food, flowers, cloth, and clippings of the sultan’s hair and fingernails—are meant to ensure the sacred alignment between the volcano, his palace, and the Indian Ocean, and thus the safety of the people.

Less than two weeks after Merapi’s first major eruption of 2006, a powerful earthquake had struck south of Yogyakarta, killing more than 5,000 people. The palace and royal burial grounds were also badly damaged—an ill omen for the sultan, already the target of public outrage over the slow distribution of relief funds. Damage control was in order. Even a modern sultan can’t escape the force of the old beliefs. With or without him, the annual ritual offerings had to be made.

So the sultan’s staff laid out offerings in the quake-damaged courtyard for a brief ceremony, then sent them to waiting cars, which sped off in two separate directions. The first set of offerings was brought to Marijan’s house. The next morning, the Gatekeeper hiked to a pavilion a mile from the volcano’s peak where, amid trees snapped in half by the latest pyroclastic flow and the crash of tumbling boulders, he solemnly prayed over the sultan’s offerings.

A second set of offerings was driven south to Parangkusumo, the Indian Ocean beach where, legend says, the sultan’s 16th-century ancestor Senopati met the sea goddess Ratu Kidul. Thousands of houses lay in rubble amid the rice fields. At Parangkusumo, the sultan’s staff buried his hair and fingernail clippings near the beach, in a walled-off compound where two flower-strewn stones marked the site of the ancient encounter. Other offerings were flung into the waves.

It is August. Three months have elapsed since the first major eruption of the year. Though still active, Merapi has settled down. Residents attribute the calm to Marijan’s prayers and presence on the volcano. But calm in Indonesia is about as long lasting as a plume of smoke.

THE ANTAGONIST in the equation is militant Islam. Radicalized by events such as 9/11 and the United States invasion of Iraq, groups preaching a more austere version of Islam have gained strength and influence, fueled by the perception that Islam is the cure for Indonesia’s ills, notably its poverty and corruption. Some local governments have introduced measures based on sharia, Islamic law, that call for the arrest of women not wearing head scarves or the public whipping of adulterous couples.

Militant Islamists have targeted mysticism in the conviction that such practices pollute the faith. Islamic relief workers who arrived in Yogyakarta following Merapi’s first blowup in May 2006 vowed to disrupt rituals held on the volcano, while in Jakarta members of an Islamic youth group hacked branches from a sacred banyan tree to prove it had no magical power.

“People used to believe that things like graves and big trees were sacred,” says Muhammad Goodwill Zubir, a leader of Muhammadiyah, an organization focused on peaceful ways to purge the Muslim faith of pre-Islamic influences, including the “heretical” reverence for volcanoes. “As Muhammadiyah spreads in those areas, such beliefs have died out,” Zubir says. His movement boasts about 30 million members and runs thousands of mosques, schools, and clinics to promote the orthodoxy. But how to explain a painting of what looks like Merapi hanging outside Zubir’s office in Jakarta? “It’s just art,” he shrugs. Nothing more.

Still, there are men, like Satria Naradha, who believe that mysticism will not merely survive, it will flourish. Naradha owns Bali’s top newspaper and television station. Locals admire the fortysomething media mogul for conducting the lavish rituals that President Yudhoyono so pointedly dislikes.

“Volcanoes are the thrones of the gods,” he explains. “They are nature’s greatest force, one which can sustain life or destroy it.” Naradha is helping underwrite an ambitious program of building Hindu temples across Indonesia, particularly on active volcanoes. In addition to raising nearly one and a half million dollars to complete a temple on Lombok’s Mount Rinjani, he has plans to build on Sumbawa’s Mount Tambora, site of an 1815 eruption that was the biggest in recorded history. Naturally, he hopes one day to erect a temple on Mount Merapi.

Building Hindu temples in predominantly Muslim areas might seem a dangerous provocation in a country prone to religious and ethnic strife, but Naradha is undeterred. Temples help strengthen Balinese culture by harnessing the spiritual power of the volcanoes they’re built on, he explains. Most of all, they help restore the harmony between humans and nature. “This helps all Indonesians, not just the Balinese,” he says.

A happy thought, except that harmony seems hard to come by in a nation splintered by multiple beliefs and languages, and the incessant tug-of-war between the modern world and ancient traditions. Revivalist Hinduism, militant Islam, ancient mysticism: Which will prevail? Perhaps all. Perhaps none. Globalization is sweeping through Indonesia like a monsoon. A young Internet-savvy generation worships not volcanoes, but Asian boy bands and English soccer clubs.

But don’t count the volcanoes out yet. Recently, Golkar, Indonesia’s largest political party, held its annual conference in Yogyakarta. Its ambitious leader, Vice President Jusuf Kalla—he of the inauspicious name—is expected to run for president in 2009.

In the teak-paneled ballroom of the Hyatt Regency, Kalla introduces the guest of honor as a man who is “resolute and able to make decisions in any situation or risk.”

It’s Mbah Marijan, of course. Who better to launch a campaign for the nation’s highest office than the President of Merapi?

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