Indonesian volcano's spiritual caretaker dies

Associated Press
FILE  - In this May 18, 2006 file photo,  Maridjan, center, the spiritual guardian of  Mount Merapi, with other villagers perform a midnight walk in silence circling their village as a part of a ritual of a prayer for protection from disaster, in Kinahrejo village which lies on the slope of the volcano, Indonesia.  For 33 years, Maridjan spoke to Mount Merapi, appeasing its unpredictable spirits by throwing offerings of rice, clothes and chickens into the volcano's gaping crater. As Merapi began spewing 1,800 degree Fahrenheit (1,000 Celsius) gases and thousands of villagers streamed down the mountain's slopes, Maridjan refused to budge. His rigid body was found Wednesday, prostrate on the ground in the typical Islamic prayer position and caked in heavy white soot. (AP Photo /Dita Alangkara, File)
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FILE - In this May 18, 2006 file photo, Maridjan, center, the spiritual guardian of Mount Merapi, with …

For 33 years, Maridjan spoke to Mount Merapi, appeasing its unpredictable spirits by throwing offerings of rice, clothes and chickens into the volcano's gaping crater.

Many villagers took his word — not that of government officials or seismologists — as the last on when it would erupt. And the 83-year-old did appear to predict the volcano's latest eruption — which killed 33 people this week — but did not heed the warning himself.

As Merapi began spewing 1,800 degree Fahrenheit (1,000 Celsius) gases and thousands of villagers streamed down the mountain's slopes, Maridjan refused to budge.

His rigid body was found Wednesday, prostrate on the ground in the typical Islamic prayer position and caked in heavy white soot.

On Thursday, high-profile politicians, soap opera stars, singers and hundreds of family and followers flocked to his funeral on the slopes of the mountain that had been entrusted to his care by a late king. Televisions crews and reporters added to the chaos, jostling for position, as family and friends tried to say their last goodbyes.

"I never thought he was going to leave us in such a way," said Prabukusumo, the brother of the sultan in the nearby court city of Yogyakarta who is now tasked with choosing his successor. "He's lived through so many, much bigger eruptions. I'm still in shock."

But a friend said Maridjan seemed to be expecting his death.

When asked by his close friend, Wansafyudin, days before the eruption if it might not be better to leave, he refused, according to the English-language Jakarta Globe newspaper.

"My time to die in this place has almost come," he reportedly said.

Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago, is located on the so-called "Ring of Fire," a series of fault lines that are prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.

Merapi is one of the world's most active mountains.

When he was 50, Maridjan inherited the position of "key holder" of the mountain from his father, receiving the official appointment from the sultan of Yogyakarta.

He was believed by many to have the ability to speak directly to the mountain and led ceremonies every year to hold back its lava flows by throwing rice, clothes and chickens into its dome.

Many villagers saw him as a hero, believing him over government officials and seismologists when it came to determining Merapi's danger levels. But he was a constant source of frustration for those tasked with overseeing evacuations.

Every time he refused to head down the mountain, he set a bad example for others, putting their lives at risk, they said.

Among the 13 people found dead in his home, halfway up the mountain, was an Indonesian Red Cross volunteer who was trying to persuade him to leave.

"People should follow calls from district heads, village chiefs and other officials," said former Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who now heads the aid agency. "Merapi disasters threaten the safety of villagers as well as volunteers who come to save them."

Despite such calls, the practice of appointing caretakers of nature spirits in Indonesia persists. Although most of the country's 237 million people are Muslims, the country also has deeply mystical and Hindu-Buddhist traditions.

And far from serving as a cautionary tale, Maridjan's death and Merapi's continuing eruption has made many villagers only yearn for his quick replacement.

"I'm more afraid than ever," said Prapto Wiyono, a 60-year-old farmer from the village of Pangukrejo, who was among thousands of people crammed in an emergency shelters. "Who's going to tell us now what's going on with Merapi?"

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Associated Press reporters Andi Jatmiko and Elisabeth Oktofani contributed to this report from Mount Merapi.

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