By Salim Osman
MERAPI (CENTRAL JAVA) – ALMOST two weeks after the eruption of Merapi, several thousands among the more than 20,000 villagers who had been evacuated to safe shelters at the bottom of the 3,000m mountain are returning to their homes on its slopes to tend their livestock and crops.
This is despite warnings that the danger posed by the volcano has not passed.
It continues to spit lava, gas and clouds of ash.
They join other villagers who had refused to be evacuated when the authorities stepped up the alert to its highest level two Saturdays ago, before the eruption the day after.
The villagers’ action in the central Java province may seem like the fatalism of rural people everywhere, but it speaks of a deeper, buried layer of Hindu traditions among the people for whom the Islamic faith, though dominant, still remains a recent veneer.
The man who embodies these ancient traditions, which amount to Javanese mysticism, is 79-year-old Mbah Marijan, an elder in the Kinahrejo hamlet, just 4km from the crater.
His village, surrounded by uninhabited forest, is perched high up on the mountain slopes and well within the danger zone.
For more than 20 years, he has served the Yogyakarta palace as the ‘jurukunci Merapi’, or the spiritual keeper of the mountain, after having taken over the post from his late father, Mbah Surakso. Mbah is Javanese for grandfather or elder.
The diminutive, frail-looking man, dressed in a short-sleeve batik shirt, a cream-coloured sarong and a black songkok, sat like royalty on a sofa in his wooden hut, chain-smoking a Western brand of cigarette. All around him on the walls were the royal colours and other insignias bestowed on him by the royal court of Yogyakarta.
‘My job is to look after this mountain. I am not going anywhere,’ he told The Straits Times in Javanese, the only language he is fluent in.
Unlike neighbouring hamlets, his village has not been hit by the rains of ash from the nearby crater in recent days.
The air remains cool and fresh, unlike that of neighbouring hamlets’, which is thick with the pungent smell of burning ash and sulphur.
‘There is no danger here,’ he said authoritatively.
The interview was interrupted by the a stream of visitors who came for a sowan (Javanese for paying homage), asking the old man for spiritual advice as well as assurances about the simmering Merapi.
Speaking in a high form of Javanese befitting his position as an abdi dalem or court official, Mbah Marijan told his supplicants not to be afraid of the rumblings of the volcano whose base forms the backyard of his hut.
But local authorities in charge of evacuation efforts as well as the current Sultan Hamengku Buwono X, who is also Governor of Yogyakarta, are angered by his stand.
Yet, they cannot force him out. Police officers had persuaded him many times to do so – but in vain.
Because he is staying put, many villagers are following his example.
But he is setting the wrong example, said Mr Urip Bahagia, head of the local disaster task force in Sleman regency.
‘By refusing to leave the area, he is also making it difficult for us to evacuate more residents and get those who returned to their homes to move back to the shelters.’
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who visited refugee shelters in Sleman district last week, told officials not to give up on persuading residents, including Mbah Marijan, to leave the danger zone.
‘I understand that in Yogyakarta, there’s still traditional beliefs among people. We respect that belief, but when it comes to saving people, we have to do our job well,’ he said.
But Mbah Marijan, who is paid a monthly allowance of 7,000 rupiah (S$1.20) by the royal house of Yogyakarta to look after the mountain and the safety of the villagers, insists he will not go, saying he is waiting for a sign from the long-dead king, Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX, who had appointed him.
His family, comprising his wife, two sons, three daughters and their spouses and children, remain with him in the family home.
Volcanologists maintain that Mount Merapi, which means Fire Mountain in Javanese, may erupt massively at any time and that people living on its slopes should stay out of the area.
Over the last 200 years, the volcano, one of the world’s most active, has erupted scores of times, often with deadly results. The last eruption in 1994 saw 60 people killed by a searing gas cloud.
But the villagers value natural omens and the spiritual guidance of Mbah Marijan more highly than the scientific speculation of the volcanologists.
‘He is a revered figure here,’ said Mr Bejo Mulyo, the local district chief. ‘If he goes down from the mountain, then many villagers would follow him.’
For Mbah Marijan, the current rumblings are nothing more than an expression of anger by the Merapi at the environmental degradation in the area due to increased mining of sand and deforestation by man.
To appease the angry volcano, he spent two nights meditating very close to the crater last week.
This was followed by two silent marches last Thursday night and Monday night, during which he led his followers to walk around the village three times to protect it from danger.
Both rituals have their roots in Hindu traditions, although most of the villagers, including Mbah Marijan himself, are Muslims.
Mount Merapi is linked spiritually to the royal house of Yogyakarta, according to Mbah Marijan, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Javanese folklore.
He said the 16th century founder of the present House of Yogyakarta, Panembahan Senapati, once forged an alliance with the mythical Queen of the South Sea, Nyai Ratu Kidul.
In return for peace, glory and protection, Senapati and his nine subsequent descendants had to wed the Queen and present annual offerings to the four abodes of spirits allied to the palace.
These are Merapi in the north, Parangkusumo beach facing the Indian Ocean in the south, Mount Lawu in the east and the sacred pond of Dlepih Kahyangan in the west.
In Javanese mysticism, the palace in Yogyakarta occupies a central position, while the spirits residing in the four corners protect the sultan and his people.
Mbah Marijan presides over an annual ritual during which the Yogyakarta palace presents offerings to Merapi to renew this ancient alliance between the palace and the world of spirits residing there.
That job has now become more important for Mbah Marijan with the simmering volcano.