IT WAS A WEDDING that would be talked about for years. In Turgo village, on the southern inclines of Gunung Merapi, the volcano was boiling mad, spitting bile and spewing invective with every sulphurous belch. The air smelled of stagnant water, its poison inflaming throats, eyes, skin. Clouds like tightly coiled balls of wool rolled down the slopes. Dogs howled. But still the husband- and wife-to-be insisted on going ahead with their nuptials.
On November 22, 1994, their wedding party made merry in the shadow of the Fire Mountain until, without warning, a thunderous blast deafened all present. Houses collapsed, trees burned and ears melted as Merapi blew its top, volleying lava and heat clouds from its crater. The couple and 14 of their guests in Central Java were among 60 people killed in the eruption. Many died trying to outrun the wedus gembel (“curly-haired sheep” clouds) giving chase down the mountain.
One man, Maridjan, apparently predicted the disaster, foreseeing in a dream what seismographic equipment monitoring the volcano’s moods had failed to detect. But villagers’ belief in his powers – among them the ability to commune with spirits and, if need be, vanish like a genie and reappear elsewhere – earned him notoriety 12 years later, the last time Merapi roared from the belly, coughing up lava, ash and hot gases that earned her a red-level alert. In 2006, despite the threat posed to 33,000 people living in the “danger zone”, only one third heeded the authorities’ order to evacuate. While some stayed for fear of losing property and livestock, many reportedly defied the command because they preferred to believe in Maridjan, the oracle.
Mount Merapi, 2,968 metres from base to irascible summit, has for centuries played a spiritual role in Central Java and inspired myths and rituals that make a mockery of modernity. Her unpredictability and track record bolster beliefs of, among other things, spirits inhabiting the volcano in a world that parallels our own. Coupled with the fact that geologists cannot yet tell with precision when a volcano will blow and how devastating the consequences will be, the tenacity with which people cling to seemingly irrational explanations for eruptions is perhaps unsurprising. One interpretation is that volcanoes exact vengeful justice on the world (and by extension wrongdoers), which may be why everyone from farmers to politicians to intellectuals regularly pays their respects to Maridjan, whose official job is undeniably odd: to perform rites designed to placate Merapi’s otherworldly inhabitants. Statistics help explain fears: no other country has as many active volcanoes as Indonesia, with more than 130, and Merapi is the most volatile in the land, small outbursts occurring every two or three years, devastating eruptions every decade or so. These larger blasts can produce pyroclastic flows reaching 300 kilometres an hour and temperatures that would melt lead.
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