Brian Amanda is the only teenager in town. The 16-year-old lives in Pitu on the eastern peak of the dormant volcano Nglanggeran in Yogyakarta, 740 meters above sea level. Each morning, Brian undergoes the tedious descent down the volcano to go to school and hang out with his friends. In the afternoon, he makes the sweaty ascent back home. Despite the effort, he says he likes living there.
Pitu is said to be a mystical land. Traditional regulations and sacred beliefs state that only seven families may live there at a time, although it’s hard to believe that many others would choose to settle there even if they were allowed, given its remoteness. While the western peak of Nglanggeran attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists a year, only a handful make it up the dangerous roads to the eastern peak to Pitu. From the foot of the mountain, it takes about half an hour by motorcycle. The whole trip is along winding, steep roads that occasionally change from cement to rocks.
The seven Pitu families are scattered across a steep seven-hectare plot of land, with houses located far apart from one another. Most of the residents are relatives, descendants of the village founder Eyang Iro Kromo.
Redjo Dimulyo is 102 years old, Pitu’s oldest resident and the village's keyholder. He told VICE that the town was established in the 1400s by Eyang Iro Kromo, who was chosen to guard an heirloom found in a tree known as Kinah Gadung Wulung. The object was found at the peak of the Nglanggeran volcano, and is said to be so powerful not just anyone could protect it. In return for his service, Eyang Iro Kromo was given this plot of land to pass on to his descendants. Redjo is believed to be Eyang’s great-grandson, although he admits that the timelines don’t quite align. “It doesn’t make sense when you add it up, does it?,” he said.
Redjo’s home is near the ancient burial site where all Pitu residents have been interred. When asked about the limit of seven families living here at a time, he stressed that if the tradition of land ownership isn’t followed, the price to pay is death. Pitu is “sacred and the land is dangerous,” he explained, adding, “If someone wants to live here, be my guest, no one is stopping you. But you’ve been warned, not everyone can handle living here.”
Once, during the reign of Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX, a cleric arrived and argued that the land belonged to the state so he was free to inhabit it. Redjo remembers: “He wanted to be the eighth family, and I warned him that was against our custom, but he was persistent. In the end, before he was able to finish building his house, he died of unknown causes.” According to Redjo this was just one of many mysterious deaths that befell outsiders. As a result, for forty years, no outsiders have dared to settle in Pitu.
While the roots of much of Pitu’s mysticism is unclear, Redjo explained that this regulation of the population has a natural legal basis in the Quranic teaching that there are seven universes. He believes his village is the central point of the universe, and therefore its balance must be maintained. While the balance may be mystic, it’s also observable in the village’s rich and largely undisturbed ecosystem. Each family in Pitu lives on roughly one hectare, with the properties overrun with greenery. The area is free from environmental and sound pollution. Residents rely on farming, giving the air in Pitu a fresh and fertile feel.
While seven families always remain, the actual population of the village fluctuates. At the moment about 30 people live here. Redjo lives with his youngest son Surono, 35, and his family. Of his 16 children, Surono is the only one who chose to stay in Pitu and raise a family. “It’s like it’s predetermined. If you have a lot of children, usually only one or two of them will stay here.”
The only way for outsiders to join the Pitu community is by marrying one of the residents. That’s what newer resident Dalino did. He had moved to Pitu from Klaten, Central Java in 1978 when he married one of Redjo’s relatives. As a non-native resident, he doesn’t comment much on the mystical aspects of the village. From his perspective, the reason only seven families live there is simple: "The access is too difficult, especially during rain where the pathway gets really muddy. When I first moved here, the residents were struggling to harvest their crop due to monkey pest. It was difficult economic times.” The access was indeed a challenge. Residents had to go everywhere by foot before the road was paved in 1999.
Despite being a relatively late addition to the community, Dalino is now trusted to handle the maintenance of Telaga Guyangan or Telaga Pelanggeran, one of the sacred lakes that has served as a water supply for people living in Pitu. Many believe that gods and goddesses used the water to bathe their flying horses. “Some people have seen it. They said the horses were perching on the rocks across the small lake,” Dalino said. The lake is now planted with rice, and a well under the banyan tree delivers water. Every day, the locals put offerings at the root of the tree.
Walking around, Dalino complained that most of the residents are elderly. “After graduating from school, young people here usually decided to migrate to the city,” he said. He hopes his kids will stay in Pitu Village, though he knows it would violates the seven family regulation. “I would build houses for them if they want to. We have a wide land here. It’s better than living poorly in the city.”
Brian is one of those who will likely leave. Despite the village’s beauty and history, Brian said that after he finishes school, “I’d like to move to the city, so I can be closer to the main road, because everything is far from here.”
After all these years, Redjo isn’t worried about what it will mean if the city draws away the next generation, throwing out the balance of seven families. “This place is lovely, and sadly nobody else can stay here. But then again… Maybe it has to go this way. We must obey nature.”
This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.