Friday, December 3, 2010

Who will Replace the Guardian of Merapi?

Mbah Maridjan
Volcanic activity on Mount Merampi has settled down in recent days and the alert level for the volcano has been lowered from a four to level three, but the possibility for more eruptions in the near future have not been ruled out.

353 people have been confirmed dead since the volcano first erupted on October 26.  Among those who died was Mbah Maridjan, who was the spiritual gatekeeper of Mount Merapi.  Eighty-six percent of Indonesia's population may be Muslims, but mysticism and spiritualist beliefs -- that may seem contradictory to more orthodox interpretations of Islam -- run deep in Indonesia, especially in the countryside.

Maridjan was highly respected spiritualist who lived near the summit of Mount Merapi, and his ties to the mountain were believed to be so strong that many villagers in the region thought that the volcano would warn him if an eruption were truly eminent.  Somewhat foreshadowing his death in 2010, a mandatory evacuation order had been imposed in May 2006 when warnings of an imminent eruption were announced, but Meridjan refused to leave. Instead he and fifty other men went to the village mosque just as the volcano began to erupt.  Bolstered by his unflinching faith that the volcano would not harm them hundred other families also refused to evacuate from the region.  While he was badly burned by a volcanic blast and hospitalized for 5 months, Maridjan became something of a national hero because of his refusal to abandon his duties as guardian of the people who lived around the volcano.  In a 2006 interview, he said, "Everybody has their duty. Reporter, soldier, police, they have their duty. I also have a duty to stand here."

When the mandatory calls for evacuation came again in October of this year Maridjan again refused to flee.  This time the volcano killed him in his home along with thirteen others who had been trying to get him to evacuate.  His body was found in a praying position, the fabric of his robes fused to him by the 1000° C pyroclastic flow of ash and gas that swept through his village.

Who will replace Maridjan is not yet known.  Queen Consort Hemas, wife of King Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, monarch of the province of Yogyakarta, has started the candidate search, and has asked at least one canidate, Ponimin, to become the new caretaker.  Ponimin, another spiritual leader who lived less than 1 km away from Maridjan, was also in the path of the pyroclastic flow.  His house was destroyed, but Ponimin, his wife and children survived with Ponimin and one of his children suffering burns.  During his interview with the Queen, Ponimin said that a supernatural being told him about the eruption and that it would hit Maridjan's house.  However, Ponimin demurred, perhaps temporarily, at the Queen's request to become the next guardian, so it is not certain if the Queen will wait for Ponimin to make up his mind or ask someone else to become caretaker.  Regardless of who is chosen, the rituals required to install a new caretaker take some time to perform so Merapi will be without an official guardian for a few months to come.

An interesting addition to this whole affair is that King Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, stated that he regretted the fact that both Mbah Marijan and Ponimin, had ignored all scientific data and refused to evacuate. He said that their actions were pure hubris and had resulted in the refusal of the villagers to be evacuated as well, saying what they had done was “absolute arrogance.” However, I don't know how much the general public blames the spiritualists for any of the deaths. If you watch the video posted above near the end there's a scene at an evacuation center where refugees have hung pictures of Marijan on the walls. Obviously, he is still venerated quite highly, and it is perhaps because Indonesians, culturally, do not perceive the "irony" that the Western reporter in the video, Miles O'Brien, attached to their situation. Life, death and the volcano are just the way things are for them so they would likely see no irony in their relationship to it.