Indonesia Culture

Indonesian Volcanoes

28 Dec , 2015  

As part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia has a fair share of active volcanoes, stretching from Sumatra, Java, the Nusa Tenggara and part of Sulawesi. The fiery ring somehow excluded Kalimantan and Papua altogether.

There are 35 active volcanoes in Sumatra, 45 in Java and around 30 in Nusa tenggara. The rests are spread in  Banda Sea, Sulawesi and its nearby lesser islands, like Halmahera.

Indonesian Volcanoes

As you can see. The number of volcanoes (most of them are active) in Indonesia is ridiculously high. 

At some point, it feels like Indonesia is sitting on ticking bombs. Those bombs can trigger global effect as history has noted. Below, you can see lists of Indonesian volcanoes whose eruptions caused effects on global scale, not just environmentally, but politically and culturally as well.

The Year Without Summer

Napoleon would have deployed his squadron of Old Guard using different strategy  if he knew what had happened some 7,681 miles due south east of Waterloo would cost him so greatly. Heavy rain and furious thunderstorm halted his advance in pursuing Wellington’s cavalry after the Battle of Quatre-Bras, and we all know how this would end for the then Emperor of France. As Victor Hugo put it in Les Misérables:

Had it not rained on the night of 17th/18th June 1815, the future of Europe would have been different…an unseasonably clouded sky sufficed to bring about the collapse of a World.

On April 10, 1815, ten weeks before the Battle of Waterloo, the mighty Mount Tambora in Sumbawa island erupted. It’s a mega-eruption unprecedented nor un-subsequent-ed in human history (I repeat, in human history). It was the loudest sound human could hear at that point in history. As Thomas Stamford Raffles, Governor General of Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), reported, the booms could even be heard from the islands of Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan respectively, some 1000-2000 kilometers away from the mountain.

The series of eruptions ejected tons of ashes and debris to the atmosphere, causing tsunamis, killing as many as 100,000 people, triggered a global climate change and weather anomalies (one of which took the advantages off of Napoleon’s hand above), decreasing global temperature by one degree Celcius, and thereby obliterating summer in European and North American countries, damaging the crops, and subsequently creating famine and disease outbreaks (cholera) in global level.

The year following that one hell of eruption was known as the Year Without Summer. The debris shrouded the sunlight to the level where the sunspots could be seen by naked eyes. Harvests failure took place in England and Ireland, while frosts ruined many crops across North America.

More than anything, it also triggered a messianic trend among poets, authors and occultists of the era, in which they seemed to compete to write the bleakest and gloomiest end-of-day-esque works that still have effects to this day.


Boris Karloff as Frankenstein monster

It was this year that Mary Shelley and co (including Lord Byron), due to incessant rain in what supposed to be a beautiful summer in Swiss, holed up in their vacation villa, and made a contest out of boredom to see who among them could write the scariest stories. Shelley, as we know, created Frankenstein in Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, while Lord Byron wrote a poem that became an inspiration for John William Polidori, another friend in that company, to write The Vampyre, the first of the vampire/dracula genre, of which we still suffered to this day no thanks to the pale yet glittery (what the…!) teenage vampires of Stephanie Meyer.

The Scream

The chance is, every learned person in the world knows about or has seen The Scream, pictured below, although not by name nor about the artist who made it.

The Scream by Edward Munch

The Scream (1893) by Edward Munch

That bright, reddish-orange hue in the background was said to be what was known as Krakatoa Sunset.

Krakatoa (or Krakatau in Bahasa), which lies in Sunda Strait, between Sumatra and Java erupted between May and August 1883. Krakatoa’s explosions were probably the most documented volcanic explosions in the 19th century. It was reported that the explosions took place on August 27 were heard in place as far as Perth in Australia, some 3000 km away. They were so loud that the same report claimed that anyone who was within 10 miles radius would go deaf from hearing the booms. Due to the large explosions, the mountain imploded and crumbled to the sea, creating 40 meters high tsunamis that killed 30,000-120,000 people along Java and Sumatra shores. Many skeletons were reported washed ashore even a year after the eruptions. Like a phoenix that was born from its own ashes, though, a new caldera has grown from its old ones since the 1920s.

Krakatoa EruptionsA litograph of Krakatoa eruptions in May 1883

 The debris that it ejected created a beautiful yet eerie orange hue on sunset that could be seen even as far as Oslo, where Edward Munch painted The Scream a decade later.

Munch’s own words depicted perfectly about the horror behind such beauty.

The sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked.

The Day I Almost Missed My Own Wedding

Mount Merapi stands 2930 meter above sea level in the very center of Java Island. It was 2010, and I was furiously banging the glass window of one particular airway’s office in Ngurah Rai Airport. A few minutes before, in the airport lounge, I had just seen the news about the eruption of Mount Merapi. It was clear, that my flight from Bali to my hometown, Yogyakarta, would soon change status from delayed to cancelled. I was right.

Banging the glass window, like I had done incessantly for 15 minutes that Thursday, was a very uncivilized way to get myself noticed. Do not try this at home, kids! Although, I have to say, uncivilized as it might be, it’s an effective way to make those airway staffs served you and reimbursed your ticket money in the speed of light. Witnessing its effectiveness, my fellow ticket holders soon followed suit. Some even did it with a generous dose of profanity, at which point airport securities were summoned. But I already had my reimbursement money, so I got out of there as fast as I could.

Born in Jakarta, spent years living in Yogya, and worked in Bali had its toll on a groom to be (i.e. me). Indonesian authority loves paperwork and I was about to experience it in the most inconvenient way possible.

I had to travel to those two cities (first Yogya, and then Jakarta) to do paperwork for my wedding. I needed to clear them all out before my wedding, which was supposed to be held in yet another city, namely, my then bride-to-be’s hometown in Kuningan, West Java (my next itinerary after Jakarta). Thanks to Merapi’s eruption, I couldn’t reach Yogya as scheduled and jeopardized the prospect of my wedding further.

Just so you can understand how dire my situation was, let me tell you that without those paperwork, there won’t be any wedding whatsoever. All the preparations, the wedding courses, the invitations and so on and so forth would have gone to waste, and my dear, dear, lovely bride-to-be would kill me if that happened, but not before kicking my butt to Kingdom Come. The other situation was, we’re broke, me and her, lol. We bet every penny that we got for this. So this was our only shot at getting married. Failing to get those paperwork in time meant we had to wait for God knows how long.

That was not the first time I had a very up, close and personal experience with Merapi.

I spent my first year of high school in a boarding school that’s located just on her foot in Muntilan, a small city in Central Java.

Everyday, I could see with my own eyes her majestic beauty, the green trees growing on her slope and even the place where people mined her volcanic sands and stones to be sold as quality building materials. On a very clear day, which was always within the coldest month of the year, I could even see the tree line, beyond which nothing grows, grey and barren.

Merapi Eruption in 2010, Mordor van Java

Merapi eruption in 2010

Staring up at Merapi was the cheapest entertainment we, me and my friends, could have those days (it’s a really small city and we had no TV). The most entertaining ones probably were when she’s active, emanating thick smokes during the day and oozing rivers of lava that we could see clearly during the night. Mordor van Java.

That day in 2010, I soon learned that my “problem” wasn’t even close to be called a problem for the people who lost their loved ones that day. Around the erupting mountain, villages destroyed, houses flattened to the ground, while the life of both human and livestock vanished by hot pyroclastic flows locally known as wedhus gembel (which means dirty sheep, based on how they look like from afar). They’re avalanche of combination of hot gases, rocks and vapors  from the caldera that descent rapidly covering a very large area and obliterate everything on their path, for which Merapi is famous for.

The volcanic ashes even reached a radius of 100 km in all directions, leaving many cities covered in thick ashes, including Yogya and definitely Muntilan where it was dark for days with no electricity and no clean water for the refugees. I couldn’t imagine the horror of spending the days under such condition.

Few hours before I entered Yogyakarta, from the bus that I had taken from Bali as an alternative to go home (no flights could enter the city), I could see the thick smoke emanating from the top of Merapi. Sinister and menacing.

I couldn’t even fathom to what extent the greatness of the eruptions that took place in the 9th century that forced almost all the people in Central Java evacuated to the east; the eruptions that laid waste, erased and hid Borobudur and Prambanan temples from people’s memory for a millennium before they were re-discovered in the 19th century.

The Prehistoric Hyper Volcano

Toba Lake, Brastagi

Danau Toba as seen from Brastagi, a tourism area in North Sumatra

In North Sumatra, there is a huge lake named Danau Toba (danau is lake in Bahasa). It stretches 100 km long and 30 km wide. Just recently, scientists said that it was the remnant of a hyper volcano that erupted in 75,000 BCE. The eruption is said to have reached VEI (Volcanic Explosivity Index) of bigger than 8 (whereas 8 is the highest scale). To put that into perspective, Mount Tambora eruption in 1815 above, which is the largest eruption ever recorded in human history, “only” has VEI of 7.

Toba eruption triggered global catastrophe to such extent that it re-shaped human history for good. For a start, it might be responsible for wiping out the Neanderthals from the Earth, thus gave way to Sapiens, our ancestors. Volcanic winter that it caused was so severe, in which global temperature dropped from 5 degree to 15 degree Celcius, it reduced the population of the Earth to mere tens of thousands, thereby creating a genetic bottleneck that explained why modern humans only have narrow variations in their genetics. The eruption also coincided with the Out of Africa theory, which means, the eruptions had something to do with the decision of the first humans to migrate.

Toba Event, as the eruptions are called is subject to dispute and new findings until this day. However, even those who disagree with the aftermath of the eruption couldn’t reject the massiveness of the eruption and its scale globally (ash residues of Toba’s eruption were found at the bottom of Lake Malawi in East Africa).


These are just few examples of Indonesian volcanoes. Mount Kelud in East Java and Gamalama in Ternate, for example, also have reputations for their massive destroying capabilities.

Mountains are highly respected in Indonesian culture. Like what ancient Greeks believed, mountains represent the high place worthy for the abode of the divines. Mount Agung in northeast Bali for example, is the holiest place in whole Hindu-Bali cosmology. Unlike the Greeks though, Indonesian have many more mountains.

Such respect was born out of the wisdom that although they destroy things, the mountains also act as the givers of life. Volcanoes give life to fertile valleys and such valleys feed people. People of Merapi, for example, believe that eruptions are signs of something imminent, a reminder for the human living on her bosoms to act accordingly. What they need to do is to go back to the “right way”, as not to incur more wrath of the divine that the eruptions symbolize. Therefore, when the ashes turned cold, the mourning ceased and the seeds start growing from beneath the layer of ash, all was forgiven, no matter how devastating the effects were.

It’s a lesson on the cycle of life. No matter what happened, life goes on.

And those volcanoes once again shrouded in peace; majestic and beautiful in their slumber.



3 Responses

  1. Marie miginiac says:

    Very interesting ! Thank you

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