Two years ago, when Merapi erupted in a month-long rash of volcanic activity that killed 350 and saw hundreds of thousands displaced in Indonesia, this plateau was ground zero. Today it is a de facto shrine to the volcano's most famous resident, Mbah Maridjan, a man once charged with communing with the hidden spirits believed to live within Merapi itself.
From his house on the plateau, Maridjan would offer flowers and foods, hoping to determine whether the volcano was angry or calm; whether residents should flee or stay. When Maridjan refused to evacuate in October 2010 and was buried under a mountain of hot ash in his home, villagers were shocked. If even the spirit guardian could perish, surely the centuries-old tradition he practised no longer had any clout.
"Maybe the explosion was punishment for our mistakes," says the villager Triyono Bendahara, 34, just a few metres from where his house and farm once stood. "We used to go to the volcano to hunt birds and cut down trees."
After Maridjan's death his son Asih Lurah Surakso Sihono was assigned the post. From the sparse tiled-floor living room of his rebuilt home where he sits sipping sweet black tea, Asih is reluctant to discuss his new role. He clasps his hands together in seeming apology. "Merapi is really a special mountain with its own special character," he says quietly. "It's difficult to predict even using scientific methods. There are a few natural signs that we can look out for, and I can use those, but I'm still quite new at this."
While his father was known to locals as a gifted mystic, Asih cuts the image of a novice. His lack of experience has not been lost on villagers, all of whom know him as a calm man who spends his days working as an administrator at the local Islamic university. It is his father who still holds the power, villagers say, readily describing a man who used to climb Merapi "with peace and calm, like he and the volcano were one". His sister Ibu Panut, who runs a small shop selling noodles and laminated photographs of her brother, describes Maridjan as a man who "loved and respected and was fully dedicated to Merapi".
But as a fourth-generation spirit keeper, it is Asih's role to appease both the volcano and its residents, to assuage doubt and re-establish order – an appointment not to be taken lightly. Spirit guardians are officially handpicked by the Sultan of Yogyakarta, a sprawling Javanese city of 400,000 some 19 miles south of Merapi, in a tradition said span 1,300 years.
According to legend, the region's first royal aide was ordered to protect the kingdom from fiery disaster by eating a giant egg. "He then became a giant, [and] is now the small hill in front of Merapi," explains Burnomo, a royal servant who has served the sultan for the past 50 years. "Now all the [spirit guardians] communicate with that giant, and traditionally the labuhan [offerings] were food to feed the giant."
While the spirit keeper's technical role is to carry out officially ordained rituals to maintain harmony between the palace, the mountain and the sea – which also has its own spirit guardian – he essentially serves as "the bridge between this world and the next", says the sultan's spiritual adviser Damardjati Supadjar.
"He is the balance between air, water and fire. If Merapi erupts he can explain that it was punishment for bad behaviour."
Many villagers still wonder if Maridjan's death was a result of his refusal to evacuate during another volcanic scare in 2006, despite warnings by government authorities and the sultan. His defiance won him accolades as a tough and competent mystic: after starring in an advert for an Indonesian energy drink, he became something of a national celebrity.
For Maridjan's son Asih, being a spirit guardian is less about managing difficult volcanic spirits and more about fulfilling traditional obligations. "It's a great source of pride, but you're also not free to do anything any more. One slight misstep and the entire village is talking about you," he says, listing village fetes, ceremonies and blessings as taking up most of his time.
While the Javanese have historically mingled their Hindu, Buddhist and animist beliefs with Islam – visiting dugun (witch doctors) before attending mosque services – Asih says he must fulfil tradition while liaising with the local volcanology office, a step his father long danced around.
From her office wallpapered with topographic volcanic maps, Sri Sumatri, a Yogyakarta native who heads the Merapi volcano division of the local geological agency, says spirit guardians are locals just like anyone else, as responsible for heeding warning signals and evacuation plans as their "subjects".
"I don't disturb their work and they don't disturb ours [because] we never know when [Merapi] will erupt – what we do know is when its energy increases," she says. "But even in Etna – I was there when it erupted [earlier this year] – there were Catholic groups praying 24 hours. Even there, in that modern country."
For many locals, modern science presents a viable – and perhaps safer – alternative to the rich tradition of communing with moody volcanic spirits.
"The old spirit keeper lived 4km from Merapi and had no car. The new one lives 8km from the rim and has a modern lifestyle," says Bambang, 35, a wild-haired and snaggletoothed local sitting below a captioned photo of Merapi reading: "I will never surrender, I will never lose, I am unbeatable."
"The key master is meant to live a humble life and commune with the spirits of the mountain. The new guy does his job but negotiates with the government. If he didn't," Bambang adds – looking out at the mountains and resting his eyes on the staggered white trees in the distance – "people would feel insecure about trusting him."