as god as it gets

Burning Faith

A Sultan, a mystic, and a volcano vie for power in Indonesia.

Traveling by bus through central Java, through towns along Mount Merapi’s western slopes, I was reminded of one of Calvino’s invisible cities: the city of Argia, which is filled with dirt. “Clay packs the rooms to the ceiling,” he writes, “on every stair another stairway is set in negative, over the roofs of the houses hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds.” Lahar dingin, a cold volcanic flow, had settled on these towns, smothering them in a heavy gray sludge that was in many places more than ten meters high. Houses became half-houses, the tops of windows and a roof. Calvino writes: “We do not know if the inhabitants can move about the city.” The inhabitants of these Javanese towns, having none of the advantages of whimsy, found a practical way to inhabit a city underground: as my tall bus passed through the narrow bit of excavated road, people moved about on top of the flow, their feet level with my eyes.

In late 2010, Mount Merapi, the volcano that bulks up so imposingly at the center of Java and has for centuries dictated the pace of life in the region, began experiencing its most significant eruption of the past 140 years. Yogyakarta, to the south, would be periodically paralyzed by ash. Villages to the west would be destroyed. By the time the activity ceased, hundreds would be dead and well over a quarter million would be displaced. At the time, I was living a few hours to the north, in Kudus, a city unaffected by the ash. Food and clothing drives sprung up in schools and hospitals and mosques. For weeks, montages of refugees, rescue workers, and the smoking mountain dominated network news.

Behind the physical disaster was a psychic one that was in some ways more destructive. From comments made in passing by my friends and behind the media’s headlines of the destruction—a few minutes into the news, a few pages into the newspaper—I gathered bits and pieces of this less obvious but more interesting story. The eruption had ignited a conflict between two dramatis personae, Hamengkubuwono X and Mbah Marijan, who were, as though culled from a fable, the current Sultan of Yogyakarta and an aging mystic in his court.

Though it is now the largest Muslim-majority nation in the world, many centuries ago the Indonesian archipelago, and the area around Yogyakarta particularly, was the seat of powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, and neither the land nor the people have forgotten it. The hills are full of the temples of the old religions, and even today the religion of the Prophet is thickly grown over with cosmologies of the Indian subcontinent—ghosts and spirits govern everyday life; benevolent when appeased, malevolent when unsatisfied. Fantastical legends of holy men overcoming villains with magic color local Islamic history, and the tombs of these religious champions are now pilgrimage sites for Muslims throughout Indonesia. Sayyid Ja’far Sadiq, a holy man from the 15th century, single-handedly defeated a monstrous group of assailants by multiplying his body to constitute his own army. Many now go to his tomb in Kudus, the city in which I was living, to pray, believing that he will carry their prayers to God.

In the 17th century, according to local tales, the storied Sultan Agung drew upon polytheistic supernatural support in his (ultimately unsuccessful) battle against Dutch colonists. Central Java also has an exceptional place in the political history of modern Indonesia; during the successful Indonesian war for independence from the Dutch in the mid-20th century, Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX offered military and political support to the revolutionaries, and, for a time when the Dutch had yet to be routed, the capital of the fledgling Indonesian Republic relocated to Yogyakarta. As a result of this aid, at the birth of independent Indonesia, Yogyakarta was the sole province allowed to retain its Sultanate. The institution and the traditions it protects are the pride of the Javanese, and it is understood by many as a powerful defense against the Islamic orthodoxy that has sought to bend religious practice away from Hindu-Buddhist influence toward forms common in the Arab world under the nebulous title of “reform.”

Appointed “guardian” of Mount Merapi by the previous Sultan, Mbah Marijan lived in a village near the volcano’s peak and was responsible for leaving offerings and performing rituals to appease the spirits within. This position commands much prestige in a land where politics are never very far from spiritual concerns, and spiritual crises express themselves in physical form. Many Javanese believe that, on the Day of Judgment, lava from Mount Merapi will flow down into Yogyakarta, destroying the Sultan’s palace before continuing on to the sea, where it will destroy the underwater palace of Ratu Kidul, a princess who holds her own court beneath the waves. Both the 17th-century decline of the Mataram empire and 18th-century instability in the Sultan’s court were attributed, at least in part, to the bad omen of Merapi’s eruption. Marijan, for his duties in the service of such a pillar of Javanese spiritual and political life, was the subject of much affection; the honorific “Mbah” can be translated as “grandfather.” But, in the course of his duties, he also attracted some notoriety.

Four years earlier, in 2006, at Merapi’s last eruption, there had been a row between him and Hamengkubuwono X. When the Sultan, citing safety concerns, ordered the evacuation of Marijan’s village, Marijan refused, citing his spiritual obligations. Many observers saw this as the crystallization of a conflict between traditional Javanese Islamic mysticism and, in an unlikely convergence, the interests of secular modernity and Islamist orthodoxy. Although critically injured in the eruption, necessitating a five-month hospitalization, Marijan survived; this was an implicit repudiation of the Sultan’s authority. The mystic had known better than the Sultan.

The incident damaged Hamengkubuwono X’s standing among religious leaders at a time when the Sultanate was already under fire from all sides. Adherents to the region’s special mystical Islam have been claiming for years that the Sultan lost his connection to Java’s spiritual world when he made the hajj—an act that they saw as a move toward the orthodoxy of Arabian Islam, which precludes meaningful participation in Javanese mysticism. On the other side, there were orthodox Islamists who had grown up in the Islamic Modernist movement championed by Muhammad Abduh in Egypt, and risen to regional prominence in the early 20th century through the efforts of the Javanese Ahmad Dahlan, who himself was at one point a court official in the Yogyakarta Sultanate. In Indonesia, these Islamists operated under the umbrella of a national organization called Muhammadiyah (roughly, “Muhammadists”), and like their Arab counterparts called for a return to the Koran and the Hadith and eschewed pre-Islamic practices such as appeasements for spirits and pilgrimages to the tombs of local holy men. They argued that mystical beliefs, from the very start, compromised the religious authority of the Sultanate.

And at the federal level, secularists have been fighting for years to see Yogyakarta’s special status revoked, arguing that there is no place for a monarchy, however reduced its actual powers might be, in the modern Indonesian Republic. The citizens of Yogyakarta remain overwhelmingly in favor of the Sultan. But Hamengkubuwono X himself has alluded to the fact that if he were stripped of his political powers he would not, as an expert on the region, put it to me, “stoop to the grubbiness of campaigning.” The possibility of the Sultan losing his political authority was troubling. The fear was that, if the union of spiritual and political power were broken, the Sultanate would be quickly marginalized by secular interests, effacing a central pillar of Javanese pride.

But Marijan, in his miraculous way, floated above politics. He earned cachet as a pop-culture icon by becoming the face of an advertising campaign for an energy drink. On billboards his elderly visage shared space with a muscular, oiled-down man—both figures, evidently, signifying manliness. It was a testament to his extraordinary appeal, that a religious mystic could also be a celebrity (could you imagine, for lack of a better Western analog, Red Bull using the image of St. John of the Cross?). This foray into materialism did not, as might have been expected, damage his reputation, but rather enhanced it. The Jakarta Post reported that Marijan used earnings from these endorsements to finance the construction of a mosque in his village as well as a church for local Christians. His appeal as a do-good celebrity stood out all the more against the spectacular corruption of politicians for which Indonesia is notorious. And so reports during Merapi’s latest eruption cycle—not a single eruption but weeks of recurring eruptions—were about Marijan and a prophecy he made that in this eruption the spirits of the volcano would take his life.

Almost as soon as the rift between the Sultan and the mystic reopened amid the attention Marijan’s prophecy was getting in the current eruption, on October 26th 2010, as a handful of people were attempting to persuade Marijan to flee, a cloud of superheated volcanic gases swept through his village. There was no possibility of survival. When relief workers reached the site, they found Marijan in the midst of Islamic prostrations, forehead to the ground, turned to stone.

It was a victory for Marijan, but a grim one. By dying in the manner that he had foretold, Marijan seemed to provide confirmation of his supernatural powers, and to offer a final repudiation of the Sultan. Believers were validated even as they were, simultaneously, stripped of their best champion. In martyrdom, his death has become a symbolic bulwark, a defense for old-style spiritualism against the encroachments of modernity, with all the secularism and skepticism that it brings with it. Legends were quick to spring up around the beloved mystic; some said that when the burning gases entered his village, they did not enter his home until he had completed his prayers.

Orthodox Muslims and secularists, as could be expected, were inclined to interpret events cynically. To them, the mystic’s death, and the collateral deaths of those who had attempted to save him, for which he was implicitly responsible, were a signal that such mystical beliefs were an anachronism that had become dangerous. And while is unlikely that any action against the Sultanate will be made under the administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a famously indecisive president who in this issue remains true to form, Indonesians on all sides are looking ahead with apprehension to 2013 when the next president begins his term. If disaster strikes under a different administration it is likely that the Sultanate will be forced to fight tooth-and-nail against marginalization by federal authorities in Jakarta who are increasingly impatient with a tradition they view as an embarrassing anachronism.

Meantime, the Sultanate muddled on. While the court attempted to distance itself from Marijan’s death, claiming that the mystic, by refusing to evacuate, acted outside the prescribed duties of his position, it appointed a new “guardian.”

Below these national discussions, people learned to get on with their lives; there were villages to rebuild and crops to replant. I visited Yogyakarta in the midst of the eruptions, after Marijan died, and found it largely unscathed but conspicuously lacking the German, French, and Australian tourists that typically flood it. Yogyakarta lies to the south of the volcano, and westerly winds, I learned, spared much of it. Indeed, having a late-night dinner of fried rice and fresh cucumber slices amid the crowds at the city center, in front of the Sultan’s palace, while buskers played pop-songs reinterpreted in tropical rhythms, it was difficult to imagine that, somewhere, there was a catastrophe in progress.

I visited a soccer stadium that had been converted into a camp for people displaced by the eruption. In and out of the gates hustled military trucks packed with rescue workers, but most of the refugees had already dispersed. Stacks of emergency food rations, great piles of donated clothing, and even a performance stage testified that, here at least, relief efforts were sufficient. Conspicuous as I was, children gawked at me. I met a volunteer, a young university student who traveled eight hours by bus with some of his friends to lend a hand for a few days, and when I voiced my surprise at the calm, he pointed out that the eruption in 2006, while less powerful, was accompanied by an earthquake, which caused considerably more devastation. Over six thousand were killed then, he told me, and around one and a half million displaced.

Eventually the eruptions ceased completely, the airport reopened, and tourism, which provides fully half of the local administration’s income, could resume, with new sights added. Volcanic material could be seen floating down rivers into the city and an ad hoc disaster-tourism industry would, for a fee, take people to villages that had been devastated by the volcano. While I wish I could claim moral reasons for not undertaking one of these trips myself, the factors were purely logistical, and I eagerly gawked at the pictures taken by a friend of mine who had. She came back with photographs of houses reduced to husks, once-green villages buried in a defacing gray, and those trite but nevertheless touching images of charred children’s toys. She told me about how people who once made their livelihood in these villages now made some rather odd money selling T-shirts commemorating their misfortune.

When I visited the area during the eruption, Marijan’s village, so near to the volcano’s peak, was too dangerous to visit, yet evidence of him was everywhere. Billboards with images of local political leaders, typically the mayor or the governor, are a standard feature of Indonesian cities, but here in Yogyakarta it was Marijan’s face that dominated, rather than the Sultan’s. There was Marijan selling energy drinks on storefronts, on billboards, on buses. At once modern and traditional, the memory of Marijan promises to long be a lodestar in conversations about the uncertain future of Javanese Islam and Yogyakarta’s political future. Whether he had planned it that way or not, his self-sacrifice was a brilliant political gesture, if also a mad one.

Christian Nicolás Desrosiers has written from Indonesia, Burma, and Somalia. Follow him at www.twitter.com/cndesrosiers .