Travel | People | Culture

Maridjan of Merapi

Mbah Maridjan and the volcano.

Mbah Maridjan and the volcano.

Mbah Maridjan, gatekeeper and key-holder of Mount Merapi, came to prominence in May 2006 as news reports showed a smoking Merapi and residents of the volcano’s slopes were warned to evacuate.

Mbah Maridjan stood firm.

“When Merapi seemed to explode, I did not understand the signs. I just thought that I would experience it. I just prayed to God ask his protection, because I believed His power would save me.”

His neighbours stayed with him, trusting in his belief that the volcano would not in fact erupt, whatever outsiders might say about the dangers. Mbah Maridjan is a deeply respected figure in the community and is believed to possess a special wisdom in spiritual matters.

Formally, Mbah Maridjan is Muslim. As we enter his yard at the foothills of Merapi, we see a Javanese-style mosque that he has constructed at one side, next to a path that leads towards the mountain.

However, he does hold traditional Javanese beliefs (kejawen) and practises spiritual ceremonies such as nglakoni and tirakat.

We haven’t made an appointment with Mbah Maridjan, but he seems entirely unsurprised by our arrival and beckons us into his house.

The title of key-holder of Merapi has been passed down from generation to generation, he explains. “My grandfather, Mbah Wonokaryo, kept it from 1935 to 1945. Then in 1950 my father inherited it.”

The role of the key-holder is a spiritual one: he is responsible for performing rituals and making offerings to the mountain, in order to ensure the safety and peaceful existence of all of Yogyakarta. Mount Merapi is a sacred site which is of great importance in the ‘magical axis’ of Yogyakarta, along with the South Sea and the Keraton.

The spiritual rulers of Merapi have traditionally acted as protectors of the kingdom of Mataram, and are now protectors of Yogyakarta. This relationship is maintained through the jurukunci, the Sultan’s representative, stationed on the southern slope of the mountain. When his father passed away in 1982, the Sultan conferred the title of jurukunci on Maridjan.

Maridjan accepts his role and the accompanying public profile with grace. The fame is not accompanied by any fortune: as gatekeeper and key-holder, Mbah Maridjan earns Rp.5,600 per month (approx. 60 US cents). With his thirteen assistants, he prays and performs daily ceremonies on behalf of the people of the region. He remains humble and dedicated.

“When I received the title, I felt calm. I am an uneducated person. Physically I am also ugly. I have an obligation to stay down to earth; I may not protest, I may not show off. The point is, I have to focus on being the gatekeeper of Merapi, for the sake of a peaceful Yogyakarta.”

(First published in Kabar Indonesia, May 2007).

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