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Earthquake signals wrath of a mythical queen

Destroyed buildings and piles of rubble.

Many Javanese villages were leveled by the recent earthquake that struck close to the ancient city of Yogyakarta.

When the magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck at 5:54 a.m. on May 27, I was getting ready to go mountain biking up a beautiful hill southeast of Yogyakarta. I started biking there a few weeks earlier, because my other favorite spot -- the lush slopes of Mount Merapi, was getting scorched by gas and ash clouds from the volcano's mild but nevertheless dangerous eruptions.

Mount Merapi lies only 15 miles from my house. So when the earthquake struck, I immediately thought we were feeling the terrifying power of a major eruption. I wasn't the only one. My neighbors instinctively checked the northern horizon for the ash clouds and lightning storms that herald a major eruption.

For weeks the national and international press had camped out a few miles north of Yogyakarta, a safe distance from Mount Merapi. But The Big One never came. Many journalists, tired of waiting, packed up and left.

Instead, Yogyakarta was attacked from the south.

The U.S. Geological Survey says the epicenter of the recent devastating quake was about 10 miles Southeast of Yogyakarta, near a beach called Parangtritis.

This beach offers a splendid view of the Indian Ocean. Gigantic waves rumble through an unbroken fetch, then crash into Java's ragged southern coastline.

The epicenter couldn't have been a more significant location, lying at the doorstep of the mythical kingdom of Nyi Roro Kidul, the Queen of the Southern Seas.

The epicenter couldn't have been a more significant location, because it lies at the doorstep of the mythical kingdom of Nyi Roro Kidul, the Queen of the Southern Seas.

She rules a kingdom under the Indian Ocean and is a powerful commander of spiritual forces. She is so revered by Javanese that few people dare swim in the waters. Wading into the beach in green swimming trunks is asking for certain death. Green is the queen's color, and misfortune will befall anyone who wears it. There's even a hotel that keeps a spacious room reserved year-round for Nyi Roro Kidul. Its interior is painted green.

The mythical queen also holds great sway over Yogyakarta's sultanate, which dates back to the 16th century. An ancient prophesy, told at the time of the fall of Java's previous Hindu kingdom, says that the royal man who descends beneath the ocean to spend a wedding night with the Queen of the Southern Seas will become the rightful ruler of Islamic Java.

In return for fulfilling her sexual desires, the sultan is rewarded with the queen's army of spirit forces at his disposal. Every ruling sultan of Yogyakarta has to take the queen as his mythical bride, and a ritual is held every year to honor this.

Mount Merapi volcano.

In June, Mount Merapi had its largest eruption this year, sending 15,000 people living on its slopes running.

The ritual shows how Javanese rulers, though officially Muslims, draw on powerful magical forces that still captivate people's beliefs. The ritual takes place at Parangtritis Beach.

The fact that the earthquake was centered near the gates of the kingdom didn't escape residents here. Many are reading this as a sign that things are amiss in the ancient sultanate of Yogyakarta.

And there were other ominous signs. The sultan's palace was heavily damaged, so too were the ancient burial grounds where the royals and previous sultans are entombed.

According to traditional Javanese cosmology, the sultan's palace lies between two powerful axes -- the Indian Ocean, which is ruled by the queen, and Mount Merapi, which is ruled by an ogre. It's the sultan's task to mediate the anger of these two forces, and the sultan's legitimacy depends on how well he can do that job. Never in modern history has the sultan's palace been so badly damaged.

After the earthquake, Mount Merapi began showing increasing activity. On June 8, it had its largest eruption this year, sending 15,000 people living on its slopes running.

But many people stayed. Among them is Mbah Maridjan. He's a mystic who lives on Mount Merapi, well within its danger zone. Yogyakarta's highly respected former sultan, Hamengkubuwono IX, appointed Maridjan as the volcano's spiritual guardian, a task Maridjan inherited from his father.

Mystic, Mbah Maridjan.

Yogyakarta's highly respected former sultan appointed Mbah Maridjan as the volcano's spiritual guardian. People believe Maridjan can communicate with Mount Merapi's spirits.

People here believe that Maridjan is able to communicate with Mount Merapi's spirits and that signs of an eruption come to him in his dreams. It's beleived that Maridjan, who is now 79, has the ability to vanish into thin air and appear seconds later somewhere else. He walks around in a sarong without shoes or sandals, puffing Kansas Light Menthols, and he rarely leaves the volcano's slopes. Most villagers turn to him for advice on when to stay and when to flee.

Ever since Merapi's danger status was raised, the Indonesian government, including Yogyakarta's current sultan Hamengkubuwono X, has been repeatedly ordering Maridjan to come down. But he's refused, defying the sultan's orders. And thousands of other villagers will stay as long as he stays, no matter how great the danger.

"The sultan has ordered me to stay here and watch over this volcano," says Maridjan. "And if I leave, he would hold me in contempt."

But hasn't the sultan ordered him to come down?

To this, Maridjan smiles. It's clear he's referring to the previous sultan, the highly respected Hamengkubuwono IX, now deceased. This outright defiance of Yogyakarta's current sultan is a clear sign of the mystic's disapproval of his rule.

Under the current sultan's reign, malls have sprouted up around Yogyakarta, a few of them the result of sizable investments from the royal family. People whisper and say that the sultan is more focused on being a businessman and a politician than on being a spiritual leader. Some have said that he has disregarded the myths and the rituals.

General discontent with the ruling class and the government bureaucracy was evident soon after the earthquake. Many of the quake victims didn't wait for the government to act; instead, they organized themselves. They set up their own clinics, buried their own dead and searched for their own food.

Singgir, a friend of mine who lives in the zone most affected by the earthquake, dropped by my house a few weeks after the earthquake. Singgir said no aid had come from the government, not even a packet of instant noodles. His village, which was leveled, had been relying on private donations from fellow Indonesians.

The myths are alive and well in his village, swirling around like fine volcanic ash, said Singgir.

Then he added that there are a thousand ways to interpret this disaster -- and so far, none of these interpretations bode well for those in positions of power.

Orlando de Guzman is a freelance radio reporter covering Southeast Asia. He currently lives and studies in Indonesia and is a regular correspondent for Public Radio International's The World.


Frankfurt a.M., Germany
Having left Indonesia only weeks ago after 5 years in Jakarta, I found this article very interesting. I am looking forward to the interpretation of the Java Tsunami that has just struck. Might this be the end of the peacefull rule of the present Sultan? What/who might come after him?