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Erupting Merapi's Guardian Not Scared

As thousands of people flee Indonesia's erupting Mount Merapi, the 80-year-old man entrusted by royalty to watch over the volcano's spirits is going nowhere — and insists the mountain is safe.

Clouds of deadly ash, rock fragments and hot gas surged down Merapi's slopes Monday as activity intensified to the highest level since the volcano rumbled back to life weeks ago.

One eruption sent an avalanche of debris and ash rolling more than 2 miles down the mountain's western flank, said Ratdomopurbo, the region's chief vulcanologist. It was followed by several other huge explosions.

"There is no risk," Maridjan said outside his home just four miles from the crater, which was billowing ash and searing-hot gas clouds Monday. "I am still waiting here."

Maridjan, who jokes constantly with visitors and occasionally falls into a trancelike state while looking at the peak, was given the official title of "key holder of Mount Merapi" by the highly respected late king of the nearby court city, Jogjakarta.

He leads yearly ceremonies when rice and flowers are thrown into the crater to appease spirits that he and most other nearby villagers believe live over the mountain, which rises from the heart of Indonesia's mystical island of Java.

His refusal to budge is angering local authorities in charge of evacuation efforts. They say he is setting a wrong example, stopping other villagers from leaving.

Police officers on Monday visited his village, deep within the mandatory evacuation zone around the country's deadliest volcano, and fruitlessly tried to change his mind.

Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid telephoned him last week with the same request, one of Maridjan's aides said.

"People have to realize that Maridjan is not a god," said Widi Sutikno, the official coordinating the government's emergency operation, who noted that Jogyakarta's current ruler has called for all to leave the mountain.

But Maridjan, who inherited the honorary position from his father, insists he will not go, saying he is waiting for a sign from the long-dead king who appointed him. A handful of other people in his village are also staying behind with him.

Maridjan and many others living on Merapi's fertile foothills offer a glimpse into Indonesia's deeply mystical and Hindu-Buddhist traditions, which have more recently been overlaid with Islam, the professed faith of the more than 90 percent of the country's 220 million people.

Maridjan says there "are many spirits above the mountain, too many to count."

Although he is a practicing Muslim, many fellow believers would likely consider some of his beliefs a violation of their strictly monotheistic faith.

Visitors to Maridjan's house address him as Mbah, an honorific title meaning grandfather, and speak to him in a high form of the local language reserved for people of status.

One police officer sent to persuade him to come down off the mountain says he, too, is an admirer.

"He has a special connection to Mount Merapi," said Eko Rudi, as he walked off to perform the midday Islamic prayer. "When I am with him, I feel like a child talking to his father."