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Least visited by tourists, what do they miss

A virgin forest, lair of the ferocious Bali tiger and haunt of highway robbers, stretching from rugged mountain chain to ragged coast this was Jim bar Wana, the "Great Forest" of the west, known today as Jembrana. More than half of the regency's 842 sq km area is forested, much of the rest is dry, and people from other parts of Bali still consider Jembrana to be only half civilized and not quite Balinese.

A Balinese chronicle accounts for the emptiness of Jembrana in the following way: When the region first came under the authority of the court at Gelgel around 1450, two princes were sent to settle the remote western forests. Gusti Ngurah Pecangakan settled near present-day Negara; Gusti Ngurah Bakungan claimed the area around present day Gilimanuk. Soon a rivalry developed between the two as to who could develop the more beautiful and prosperous court.

On one occasion, Bakungan invited his brother to Gilimanuk to attend a lavish court ceremony, and Pecangakan left his horse tied to a tree where a pig had been slaughtered. The unguarded horse broke free and ran home, first rolling in the grass and covering itself in pig's blood. Seeing the horse return rider less and bloody, Pecangakan's wife and family thought he had been killed, and as was the custom they took their own lives to share his fate. Pecangakan returned to a deserted palace and immediately declared war on his brother out of grief and rage.

Whatever the truth of this tale, the two brothers destroyed each other and their kingdoms in the civil war which ensued. All that remains of them today is a small temple. Pura Bakungan, by the side of the main road one km northeast of Cekek. And as a result, Jembrana remained sparsely populated and barely civilized while the rest of Bali blossomed with court culture. Eventually, a court of sorts developed in the town of Jembrana, which in 1803 moved a few kilometers west to the town of Negara, the present-day capital.

Who first settled the forbidding Jimbar Wana? The earliest evidence of human habitation on Bali has in fact been discovered at Gilimanuk, near the island's western tip. Not much is known about these prehistoric people.

Later residents came not only from Bali but from other islands also. The Bali Strait bordering Jembrana is notoriously treacherous, and because the Balinese are wary of the sea anyway, parts of the coast were settled by sailors, fishermen and merchants from Java, Madura and Sulawesi. Many of these were Muslims and remained so. One km south of the central market in Negara lies Loloan Timur, a village of Muslim Balinese whose Bugis ancestors migrated here as early as 1653. These villagers have retained elements of Buginese culture, most strikingly the oblong houses built of wood with living quarters on the second floor. Loloan Timur looks unlike any other village on Bali.

Outside influences are thus very much in evidence here. There is one mosque to every five Hindu temples in Jembrana. And Jembrana residents themselves will tell you that prior to the 1920s, many newcomers were people who were politically, economically or legally in trouble in other parts of Indonesia. And after 1920, local transmigration programs encouraged people from the more densely populated areas of Bali to settle in Jembrana.

Most people in Jembrana can tell you where they are originally from, and if you drive up one of the many side roads that snake into the mountains, you will encounter places like Bangsal Gianyar and Bangsal Bangli - entire communities transplanted to Jembrana a generation ago. Some of them had religious motives for coming here. Palasari and Belimbingsari in Melaya district, for example, are the largest Catholic and Protestant communities on Bali. Palasari's handsome Catholic church is the largest in eastern Indonesia.

The regency is today inhabited by only about 210,000 people, and is the least densely populated area of Bali. At least eighty percent make their living by farming, harvesting forest products, or fishing. The Bali tiger was last sighted in the 1930s, and the remaining wilds of Jimbar Wana have been incorporated into the Bali Barat National Park. Jembrana today is a beautiful agricultural region, with a unique history and character, reflected in the stories, customs and arts of its people.

Last revised on January 28, 2010
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