Indonesia is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, and it is one of the most severely threatened due to deforestation, sea temperature rise and acidification, and other impacts of resource extraction and environmental degradation. Indonesia is also vulnerable to disasters, like earthquakes; these disasters may also be intensified by human factors, as in the case of severe weather events that are linked to climate change.
Disaster brought both the beginning and the end of prayer to the slopes of Mt. Merapi, Java, when the volcano erupted in 2010. Conditions of chaos and re-established social order following the catastrophic eruption transformed key relations of religious dedication. Below I consider two examples: one documents prayer arising spontaneously in the context of environmental crisis, while the other relates of the end of a kind of prayer, or more specifically a mode of its dedication, also brought on as a result of the disaster.
In Cangkringan District, Sleman, there is a pesantren (residential religious school, a madrasa) called Al-Qodir. It is located right at the boundary of what was the initial evacuation line at the time of the volcano’s eruption. This meant that the residents who fled from within the perimeter of the evacuation zone came to the pesantren as refugees in the first hours, days and weeks after the eruption. (For another firsthand story of an Islamic pesantren and disaster relief in the area, see the end of this video, taken in 2011, explaining efforts underway at Pondok Pesantren Pabelan, in Maggelang near the Borobudur monument.)
The leader, or kiai, of “Pondok Pesantren Al-Qodir” is K.H. Masrur Ahmad. In a 2014 interview in Ramadan, K.H. Masrur explained the chain of events at Al-Qodir at the time of the eruption:
Al-Qodir had already long been known as a center for interreligious activity, but in October and November 2010, the multifaith commitments of refugees and relief workers made it a site at which boundaries of religious practice were blended through shared, urgent need.
Sleman, Central Java, has been a region of tense conflict among Christians and Muslims; however, the recognition of common experience and intention made spontaneous, communal prayer possible at pesantren Al-Qodir in 2010. At time signature 3:20 in the video embedded above, K.H. Masrur narrates how interreligious prayer took shape as people gathered at the evacuation line. Communal prayer that broke down boundaries was made possible by shared purpose or intent, namely safety (5:29), which allowed members of different faith communities to come together in shared observances and in one voice.
The eruption brought other religious changes in Cangkingan over the long-term as well as the short term. Some alterations of prayer practices were exclusive, not inclusive, with respect to traditional intentions. This, however, did not mean that such practices disappeared. Rather, a purpose with respect to the natural world was recast in the context of disaster relief efforts.
The ritual called the labuhan is a longstanding annual Javanese observance during which offerings are made to the spirits of Mt. Merapi. These offerings, such as new clothes, are gifts from the sultan of Jogjakarta, provided to the mountain’s spirit-guardian. Besides Mt. Merapi, offerings are also made at two other locations linked to the kraton, the royal palace of Jogjakarta, Central Java. The ritual begins with simultaneous processions leading from the palace to the ritual sites, the mountains and the beach of the southern sea respectively. The labuhan on Mt. Merapi, however, changed in imagination if not in its form after the eruption of the volcano and the concurrent passing of the mountain’s juru kunci (gatekeeper), Mbah Maridjan. (This documentary film on Mbah Maridjan includes an historic interview with him.)
As the juru kunci of Mt. Merapi, Mbah Maridjan, now deceased, was charged with conducting the labuhan annually. In his lifetime, he was famous for his daily silent walks up the mountain to visit its special sites, during which villagers would accompany him. On the day of the worst eruption in October 2010, when the call came for evacuation, he did not leave his home in his village on the mountain. The red cloud of pyroclastic flow subsequently swept down the slope at a temperature estimated at 600 degrees centigrade. His burned body was found later in the position of salat prayer prostration. Thirty-nine others from his village also died, many of whom had returned to their homes when they thought it was “all clear” to retrieve their animals. In total, the eruption caused 350 fatalities on the mountain.The figure of Mbah Maridjan is now venerated widely. Many praise his dedication to his role as juru kunci and to the sacred mountain, and he is seen as having made the ultimate sacrifice in this capacity. His house, once buried in ash, and his adjacent grave have now become a tourist destination. The role of juru kunci has since been passed on to his son (see top photo), Mas Asih Surakso Hargo (“Pak Asih”). Pak Asih says he is the fourth juru kunci of his line, now serving under the tenth sultan of Jogjakarta; the lineage began in his family under the eighth sultan of Jogjakarta. He continues the ritual of the labuhan, which has transitioned in public imagination out of the domain of religious rite and into the realm of “culture” and “tradition.”
I took the hike up the mountain with Pak Asih early one morning in July (Ramadan) 2014. The path starts at the ruins of the village where he had lived with his father before the evacuation; the government prohibits re-settlement there. He explained that it had taken three months to clear the path up to the second post, where the labuhan ritual is now held. (It used to be conducted higher up at the third post, but the way there is still obstructed, blocked by debris and ash.) Following a narrow path of loose rock up the steep grade of the slope, I saw signs prohibiting hunting in the sacred area. We met numerous people coming to clear vegetation for feed for livestock, even though the government prohibits anyone to live for quite a distance below. One person said he was carrying wood, and a couple more came along with hunting dogs. Pak Asih was guarding the mountain through his watchful presence in the social and physical landscape during our long hike, talking to everyone we met, all of whom recognized him instantly. When we got as far as we would go, the second post, he asked to take a picture of me under a tree he himself had planted. We stopped for a while there, the location of the ritual since the eruption, as he uttered silent devotions. On the way back down, we chatted about environmental studies and the importance of protecting the watershed against deforestation. He showed me where Mbah Maridjan had planted trees whose leaves protect against malaria.
Pak Asih explains the labuhan ritual conducted at the top of the path in the following segment of video:
At the end of the clip (6:28), when asked about the changes to the ritual since the eruption, he responds in terms of the intensification and proliferation of activities, not their disappearance. Labuhan has become embedded in what is now a media event, he explains. Since the eruption, disaster relief efforts have promoted festivalization as a part of community-building initiatives; the multi-day event now includes traditional dances, shadow puppet theater and popular musical performances.
Prayer, as in labuhan devotions to the mountain-spirits, had become a public enactment of “cultural tradition.” Pak Asih explains this point in his own words in the video segment posted below, in which he narrates the complete origin-myth of the ritual, explaining why the mountain’s guardian, Sapu Jagad, receives offerings from the sultan during the labuhan every year:
He clarifies here emphatically that the purpose of the ritual is not to worship or petition the mountain, or its spirit, since these are the creations of Allah the Creator, who Alone is worthy of praise (8:10). In the final minute of the clip above, Pak Asih emphasizes that the labuhan is a practice of cultural heritage. Intent, if it was formerly to petition the mountain or its spirits, now conforms to confirmations that do not leave space for ontological ambiguity. Labuhan is still performed, and bigger than ever, but now as “culture” not “religion.” Dedicated purpose for prayer is has come consciously to be framed among various competing or complementary commitments, aligning with reformist voices of Islam.
On the other hand, we never did discuss what Pak Asih was saying quietly when we were at the ritual site, or as he stopped for a few moments at various locations along the way. When asked, Pak Asih only offered that individual and private devotions were still observed by others. The purpose of such prayers that appeared to respond directly to the conditions of the natural world had disappeared from access. With both the gatekeeper of Mt. Merapi as well as the case of interfaith prayer in the evacuation zone of its eruption, catastrophe in the natural world had come to reveal dramatically either the rejection, adaptation or inclusion of competing possibilities for ritual purpose across what was a radically altered terrain.