I visited Mount Merapi on my very first day in Indonesia. We were at the Yogyakarta City of Java Island and after spending a leisurely day at the rice fields, we headed to explore the volcanic mountain.
Mount Merapi & Its Volcanic Eruptions
Merapi literally means mountain of fire. It is a volcano that occasionally spews fire throwing Lava and volcanic ash all around it. It may look like a disaster but it is also life-sustaining. The minerals that are thrown from the mountain make the earth around it one of the most fertile in the world. No wonder it is a densely populated part of Java Island.
At 2911 meters above sea level, it is one of the 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia. It regularly erupts, but in the recent past, it has seen eruptions in 1994, 2006, and a major one in 2010 followed by another in 2013. The 2010 one was devastating and the place was on highest alert for almost two months. Many lives were lost in the eruption including those inside the bunkers.
In the early 11th CE the volcanic eruption of Mount Merapi was the reason for the sudden disappearance of the ancient Mataram empire in Java. UNESCO world heritage sites of Borobudur temple and Prambanan have been buried in volcanic ash at different points in time.
Contrary to the obvious, the people of Java believe that the mountain is their protector and their guardian spirit. They believe it is because of the blessings that they live harmoniously. They also believe that the mountain will give them a clear sign when it is about to erupt and they need to evacuate. I wonder if we have lost the sign language of understanding the mountain.
Legends of Mount Merapi
Merapi comes from Meru + Api, both Sanskrit words. Meru means mountain or rather refers to the Meru Paravat mentioned in various Indian scriptures, and Api means Fire. The mountain has just the appropriate name for it.
It is said that the mountain lies on the North-South Axis, where at the Northern end is Mount Merapi and at the Southern end to the Indian Ocean. The imaginary line runs from Mount Merapi which is supposed to be the home of Gods to Kroton which is the King’s Palace to Tugu Jogja where the common people live and finally, the sea which represents nature. Philosophically it connects the Gods to the King, King to the people, and the People to nature. This route is considered sacred.
Dutch it seems tried to break this sacred geography when they built a railway line through it, but the faith has deeper roots and it sustains.
Javanese believe that Mount Merapi was created when Mount Jamurdipo (Jambudweep?) was shifted here to balance the island. Empu Ram and Empu Permadi, two mythical figures are supposed to be inside the mountain complete with their kingdom inside the volcanic mountain. Another legend says that it was Mount Jamurdipo that was renamed after the two figures and the fire they generate.
Javanese people make offering to the mountain for they believe the guardian spirits live inside the mountain. Special offerings are made on the anniversary of the coronation of the king of Yogyakarta. Offerings are carried from the King’s Palace both to Mount Merapi as well as to the sea to please the elements of fire and water.
Sisa Hartaku – Museums of Memories
The Sisa Hartaku literally means ‘My Remaining Treasure’ museum. This is a house that is now a museum of memories. We drove to this museum passing by many villages that are abandoned down through roads that have lava rocks scattered on them.
We walked into the house that looks forlorn, only to find the skeletons of animals and fossils. We start walking inside the house and I get a first-hand sense of a house that has been on fire. The everyday items like toothbrushes, iron boxes, and children’s bicycles all tell the tale of the trauma they went through when the mountain was emitting fire. Everything is where it should be but what remains of them is what has stood the test of fire – literally. Photographs recreate some old memories.
To me, this is a place frozen in time – 5th Nov 2010, 5:15 PM. If you wonder how do we know the exact time – it is because the clock on the wall froze in that moment of intense heat.
We all left the place in a very somber mood. It was a sad feeling but also one that tells you the power of nature that can uproot you in a matter of minutes.
This is a bunker that is meant to escape the volcano. However, in the 2010 eruption, two people died right inside this bunker.
On a clear day, you can see the conical-shaped mountain from here. Most of the days you can see the smoke too emerging from the mountain. The tour operators sell sunrise view tours for this point. Take it with a pinch of salt as the sun does not rise on the side of the mountain.
Read More – Kotagede Heritage Walk
I was there on a rainy day and all I could see was shades of grey playing with the shades of green. I remember having a cup of hot tea on a roadside stall here and paying 5,000 IDR for it. In Indian currency, it would be just about 25 Rs.
Somewhere on the way, you can see a large rock called Batu Alien literally meaning the Alien Rock. It came out of the mountain in 2010 and resembles a human face.
Off Roading at Kali Kuning River
The fun part of the Jeep tour was bashing through the muddy waters of River Kali Kuning. Since we were a large group occupying many jeeps, it was fun to go through the waters come out and see our friends scream as they waded through the water.
Despite its smoke and lava and frequent eruptions, the mountains attract adventure lovers. There are tour operators who will take you for a hike to the top of the mountain. These tours are done both during the day and at night. Night tours end at sunrise time and I assume the view would be splendid. You can even do a tour of the base camp.
We did a Lava tour that took us around the museum, the bunker, and a round of river bashing. For all this, you need about half a day. We started post-lunch and were back in Yogyakarta in time for early dinner.