Living in the shadows of an active volcano is like sitting on a time bomb, especially when one of them is called the Fire Mountain or Gunung Merapi, the volcano that dominates the center of the island of Java. Mt Merapi, located near Yogyakarta, is one of the most active volcanoes on earth. It is one of some 500 volcanoes in Indonesia, from which at least 129 are active, aptly giving this archipelago the name: the Ring of Fire.
Despite its frequent eruptions, Mt. Merapi is very central to the lives of the Javanese people and kings. For through its eruptions Merapi spews lava, ash and minerals to the surrounding areas. These provide nutrients for the soil, making this one of the most fertile areas in the world, and consequently the most densely populated. This majestic, perfectly cone-shaped volcano, with its peak at 2,911 meters above sea level, has also determined the lives of kings and realms. In the early 11th Century, the once mighty ancient empire of Mataram mysteriously disappeared, and power suddenly shifted to East Java. Scientists surmise that a violent eruption of Merapi in 1006 AD was the ruin of the empire.
This massive eruption also buried the nearby Borobudur temple in ash. More recently in the 20th century, a destructive eruption in 1930 claimed 1300 lives. Today Merapi still erupts intermittently, but the people here have befriended the mountain and accept its rumblings and coughs as part of normal natural phenomena.
The Merapi volcano plays an important part in the accepted cosmos of the Javanese sultans. The Keraton of Yogyakarta faces the mountain in one direct line. Merapi is also guarded by spiritual “guards” who give offerings to the mountain.
Local people respect the awesome power of this volcano. Annually, on the anniversary of the Sultan’s coronation, offerings (labuhan) are brought from the keraton of Yogya to Mt. Merapi , together with similar offerings carried to the Indian Ocean to the south, to appease the spirits of the mountain and the sea, in order to bring welfare to the inhabitants of Java.
Merapi is continuously monitored by a number of earthquake posts, who warn inhabitants of impending eruptions. Despite frequently giving out smoke, the mountain still attracts hikers and climbers.