May 19, 2006

Merapi Guardian Walks to Placate Volcano

By Tomi Soetjipto

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia -- The spiritual keeper of Indonesia's Mount Merapi performed a midnight ritual walk around villages to calm the mountain as vulcanologists warn the country's most dangerous volcano could still massively erupt.

Merapi, which means "Mountain of Fire," has been rumbling for weeks and scientists say a major eruption could come anytime. Last Saturday the area was placed on red alert and villagers in the immediate vicinity told to evacuate to shelters.

A Javanese king assigned 80-year-old Maridjan the job of keeper of the mountain to look after the safety of villagers. He has defied orders to leave the mountain, insisting the volcano would not endanger thousands of residents living on its slopes.

"When I listen to Merapi, I don't hear any danger. Merapi will not hurt the residents, but the residents must look after the mountain and not take everything they want greedily," the jovial Maridjan told reporters during the walk, which ended in the early hours of Friday.

Named the Tapak Bisu or the "The Silent Walk," the ritual around villages in Cangkringan district kicked off after Mardijan, a self-described devout Muslim who never misses the five-time obligatory daily prayer, performed a mass recital of the holy Koran in a nearby mosque.

Clad in a traditional brown-colored Javanese suit and sarong with matching blade on his back, Maridjan and several other villagers walked in silence through the mountain's mist and cool breeze, outnumbered by dozens of reporters flashing cameras and shining lights.

The ritual to soothe the angry Merapi kicked off in Kinahrejo, a sleepy village dotted with pine trees lying about six kilometers (four miles) from the volcano's peak, which for weeks has been sporadically spewing clouds of hot gas and ash into the air, and spills of red hot lava.

Maridjan was required to circle the villages three times. He completed the first round after one hour and journalists were then ordered to leave the area.


The volcano's activity on Friday had decreased marginally from the previous day, said Subandrio, head of the Merapi section at the Center for Vulcanological Research and Technology Development in Yogyakarta, the ancient royal capital near the mountain.

The hot gas clouds, which residents call "shaggy goats," stretched about two kilometers down the mountain. Before the last major eruption in 1995, they had sprawled six kilometers.

"Merapi seems calm again today, so there are many people, especially men, returning to their homes to clean the ash from their crops," Riyoto Suwarjo, a Central Java rescue unit official, told Reuters.

Many residents had already gone back to stay in their villages earlier in the week when a major eruption failed to materialize.

Vulcanologists fear the collapse of a lava dome that has built up on the mountain could trigger a deadly eruption. Subandrio said scientists were evaluating the latest state of the dome.

During the eruption in 1994, most of the 70 deaths were caused by the outpouring of hot ash and other material following the collapse of such a dome.

Many villagers consider Merapi sacred. Every year, a traditional Javanese priest climbs to the top to make an offering.

Residents say they have yet to see what they consider the traditional signs of an impending major eruption, such as animals fleeing down Merapi's sides or lightning around the peak.

(With additional reporting in Jakarta by Diyan Jari)