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Spiritual caretaker of Indonesian volcano dies

He was the keeper of Mount Merapi, an 83-year-old man entrusted to watch over the volcano's spirits, believing it could be appeased by tossing offerings of rice, chickens and flowers into the gaping crater.

world Updated: Oct 29, 2010 02:43 IST

He was the keeper of Mount Merapi, an 83-year-old man entrusted to watch over the volcano's spirits, believing it could be appeased by tossing offerings of rice, chickens and flowers into the gaping crater.

And when the eruption came, Maridjan was among those who died, along with dozens of villagers who believed him, not seismologists or government officials, about the danger.

As Merapi began spewing 1,800-degree gases and thousands of panicked people streamed down the mountain's slopes, Maridjan refused to budge from his home deep in the evacuation zone, just four miles from the crater.

His rigid body was found Wednesday, prostrate in the Islamic prayer position and caked in heavy white soot. Nearby was an Indonesian Red Cross volunteer who had been trying to persuade him to leave.

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

On Thursday, politicians, soap opera stars and singers were among hundreds of people who flocked to Maridjan's funeral on the fertile slopes of the mountain entrusted to his care by a late king. Televisions crews and reporters jostled for position with family and friends, who reached to touch the white silk-covered coffin as it was carried to the grave.

Mourners knelt to pray as the body, wrapped in a simple white cloth, was lowered into the ground. Led by his weeping wife, they tossed pink and white flower petals, then covered it with soil and piled cut orchids on the mound.

One of the world's most active volcanos, Merapi is located on the so-called "Ring of Fire," a series of fault lines prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.

When he was 50, Maridjan was named "key holder" of the mountain, inheriting the position from his father. For 33 years, the diminutive man with an impish smile led ceremonies meant to hold back Merapi's lava flows and quiet the spirits he and other villagers believe live over the mountain that rises from the heart of the Indonesian island of Java. The mystical practice persists in Indonesia, even though most of the country's 237 million people like Maridjan himself _ are Muslims. Islam is a relatively new arrival to the country and coexists with older traditions that have their roots in animist, Hindu or Buddhist beliefs.

Maridjan was believed by many to have the ability to speak directly to the volcano, and fellow villagers considered him a hero, trusting his word over local authorities when it came to determining danger levels _ with deadly consequences on Tuesday. "Maridjan was very conscientious in performing his duties. But because he was a role model, many other victims died when the explosion happened because they still stayed in the village," said his brother, Wignyo Suprapto.

"They thought that everything would be safe because Maridjan did not leave."

He enjoyed a kind of celebrity and just days before the deadly explosion, Maridjan joked with camera crews following him from his mosque in the village of Kinahrejo to his thatched-roof home. Walking barefoot on a dirt road, he teasingly covered his face with his hands.

He was said to have predicted his end, telling a friend who urged him to evacuate: "My time to die in this place has almost come." But far from serving as a cautionary tale, Maridjan's death has made many villagers only yearn for his quick replacement. "I'm more afraid than ever," said Prapto Wiyono, a 60-year-old farmer who was among thousands of people crammed in emergency shelters. "Who's going to tell us now what's going on with Merapi?"