‘Spirit Keeper’ walks line between tradition and technology

Merapi volcano’s ‘spirit keeper’ walks line between tradition and technology


Two years after eruption killed 350 in Indonesia, Mbah Maridjan’s son has taken over his role appeasing Mount Merapi

Two years ago, when Merapi erupted in a month-long rash of volcanic activity that killed 350 and saw hundreds of thousands displaced in Indonesia, this plateau was ground zero. Today it is a de facto shrine to the volcano’s most famous resident, Mbah Maridjan, a man once charged with communing with the hidden spirits believed to live within Merapi itself.

From his house on the plateau, Maridjan would offer flowers and foods, hoping to determine whether the volcano was angry or calm; whether residents should flee or stay. When Maridjan refused to evacuate in October 2010 and was buried under a mountain of hot ash in his home, villagers were shocked. If even the spirit guardian could perish, surely the centuries-old tradition he practised no longer had any clout.

“Maybe the explosion was punishment for our mistakes,” says the villager Triyono Bendahara, 34, just a few metres from where his house and farm once stood. “We used to go to the volcano to hunt birds and cut down trees.”

After Maridjan’s death his son Asih Lurah Surakso Sihono was assigned the post. From the sparse tiled-floor living room of his rebuilt home where he sits sipping sweet black tea, Asih is reluctant to discuss his new role. He clasps his hands together in seeming apology. “Merapi is really a special mountain with its own special character,” he says quietly. “It’s difficult to predict even using scientific methods. There are a few natural signs that we can look out for, and I can use those, but I’m still quite new at this.”

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Categories: Asia, Indonesia

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