Jembrana is the area of Bali least visited by tourists. This means that tourist facilities are less developed here than elsewhere, but it also means this is a great place to get off the beaten tourist track. Visitors to Jembrana should not expect to sleep in air-conditioned hotels with hot running water, or to converse in English with every shopkeeper and waiter. It requires some initiative to unearth the treasures, which the area has to offer, but most visitors will find it well worth the effort.
Jembrana's main population centers are all found along the 71 kms of road that hug the southwestern coast. You can reach it from Singaraja via the wild, dry forests of the north, or from Denpasar by way of the vast rice fields and brilliant coastline of Tabanan.
The ferry from Java berths at the town of Gilimanuk at Jembrana's western tip. To the east, a mountain road winds down from an elevation of 798 in at the Buleleng border to the town of Pekutatan on the main coastal road. Traversing fragrant clove and vanilla plantations that at one point pass the tangled aerial roots of a giant bunut tree, this little-known road offers spectacular view across to Java and is the most scenic way to enter Jembrana.
Three kms west of Pekutatan village, on the left coming from Denpasar, is the entrance to Medewi Beach - a black sand beach with a pounding surf. This beach is one of the best-kept secrets in Bali.
Temple of the sacred hair
The most important temple in Jembrana is Pura Rambut Siwi, which lies about 20 kms west of the Tabanan border by the village of Yehembang. Its entrance is marked by a small shrine at the edge of the road, where Balinese travelers stop briefly to pray for safety in their journey. Two hundred meters from the main road lies the main temple complex, perched on a cliff at the edge of the ocean.
Pura Rambut Siwi is an important monument to the priest Danghyang Nirartha, who came to Bali from Java during the decline the Majapahit Kingdom in the hopes of for fortifying Balinese Hinduism against the spread of Islam occurring elsewhere in the archipelago. Between 1546 and 1550 he traveled through the island teaching and unifying the Hindu populace. According to legend, he stopped pray at a village temple at Yeh Embang, and made a gift of his hair to the temple. Since that time it has been known as Rambut Siwi, which means "worship of the hair."
The complex consists of three temple enclosures in a setting of great natural beauty. The first one you encounter as you enter from the main road is the largest and most important, the Pura Luhur where Danghyang Nirartha's hair is kept. A majestic candi bentar or split gate on the southern wall of the inner courtyard opens onto the cliff, offering dramatic views of the surf below. Gnarled frangipani trees litter the ground with fragrant blossoms, and incense burns at the feet of moss covered stone statues swathed in white cloth.
From Pura Luhur you can walk east along the top of the cliff to a winding stone stairway that descends to Pura Penataran, the original temple where Danghyang Nirartha is believed to have prayed. When the Balinese worship at Rambut Siwi they first enter this temple.
Walking back westward along the beach. You pass a small shrine at the entrance to a cave in the cliff wall. This cave is said to be the lair of mystical animals the duwe or holy beast of the temple. A well at the mouth of the cave is a source of holy water that is salt free despite its proximity to the ocean. Just beyond the cave, another stairway leads back up to the temple. Perched on the edge of the cliff here is the tiny Pura Melanting where merchants stop to pray for prosperity.
A large open-air performance pavilion and two gazebos set amidst lily ponds to the west of Pura Luhur are excellent places to rest and enjoy a panorama of rice fields and white wave crests curling against the black sand coastline as far as the eye can see.
Continuing west along the main road, another important temple is situated along the coast southwest of Mendoyo. This is Pura Gede Prancak, where Danghyang Nirartha is believed to have first landed. A peaceful shrine of white stone here sits on the banks of the placid Prancak River, which empties into the sea about 100 in south of the temple.
To reach it, turn left off the main road in Tegal cangkring, 8 kms west of Rambut Siwi and follow a narrow back road one and a half kms to an intersection marked by a monument. Turn right and continue west about 9 kms. The temple is on your right where the road turns south along the Prancak River.
At the time of Danghyang Nirartha's arrival, this area was controlled by the debauched ruler, Gusti Ngurah Rangsasa, who obliged the newcomer to pray in his temple. When the holy priest complied, the temple structures collapsed. Gusti Ngurah Rangsasa then fled and the community rebuilt the temple in honor of Danghyang Nirartha and his teachings.
Tones of the giant bamboo
Jembrana is home to a number of fascinating art forms found nowhere else. By far the most popular and thriving of these is the fabulous Gamelan Jegog, a big bamboo orchestra whose deep, resonating tones vibrate through the air almost every night in Jembrana.
Gamelan Jegog is an ensemble of fourteen bamboo instruments so big and resonant that their vibrations are felt by the body as much as the ears. The biggest are so tall that musicians have to sit on top of them in order to play them by striking the keys with heavy mallets. These larger instruments play low pitched melodies, while the smaller ones spin out intricately syncopated variations with dazzling precision and speed. The result is a dense, multi-layered fabric of sound, above which a single bamboo flute trills a sweet, sinuous melody.
The most prevalent form of jegog today is the awesome Jegog Mebarung where two or more orchestras perform together. Each plays in turn, pitting their skills against one another in a fierce musical battle. Jegog mebarung is an unforgettable event to witness. The instruments sway back and forth, the musician's bob up and down, and the onlookers cheer enthusiastically, occasionally helping the musicians to replace a broken key. The winner is the ensemble that can make itself heard above the frenzy.
Jegogs are also evaluated for their visual appearance. The wooden components of the instruments are all finely carved and brightly painted, with tall ceremonial umbrellas and handsome statues affixed to the big instruments in the back.
Other interesting art forms of the area include the Jegog Dance, as unique as the gamelan itself, Pencak Silat, which is a mixture of choral singing, theater, martial arts and acrobatics, supervised by a sharp-tongued jester named Dag, and a daredevil knife dance called Cabang. All of these have roots in the performing arts of Java, Madura, and the Malay world. In recent times, traditional Balinese dances and dramas from the gamelan gong repertoire have been set to jegog music, and these renditions have become even more popular than the originals.
Kendang Mebarung, a contest of giant drums, shares the competitive spirit of jegog mebarung. The contest is between two oversized drums, each 2 to 3 meters in length and one meter in diameter, accompanied by abbreviated gamelan angk1ung ensemble. When the drums compete, at cremation ceremonies, national holidays, or simply for pub' lic entertainment, the drummers play interlocking rhythms that challenge each other's resonance, volume, and rhythmic dexterity.
Another type of ensemble indigenous to Jembrana is the Bumbung Gebyog. Eight to twelve lengths of bamboo of varying pitches are struck on the ground in rhythmically intricate, interlocking patterns. Probably the only music in Bali that originated and has remained the preserve of women, bumbung gebyog derives from the pounding of newly harvested rice in the lesung to remove husks. Nowadays it is performed on national holidays and at ceremonies related to rice agriculture, usually accompanied by narrative dances or the playful Ngibing Dance where spectators may take turns dancing with dancer.
There are no regularly scheduled performances, so you will have to hunt a little to see any of the above. Of the 46 jegog ensembles in Jembrana, the champion today is Jegog Niti Swara in the town of Tegalcangkrin Jegog Suar Agung in Sankar Agung near Negara is also well known for their presention of the new style of jegog dance and drama. To see them, it may be necessary to commission a performance.
Contact Ida Bagus Raka Negara in Tegalcangkring for assistance. It costs about $80 to arrange a jegog performance, and you should book a few days in advance. Bumbung gebyog and kendang mebarung are less common today; Ida Bagus Raka Negara can nevertheless help locate or commission one. Another source of information is the Office of Fducation and Culture (Kantor Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan) in Negara.
Off to the races
The water buffalo races of west Bali, known as Mekepung and imported by the local Madurese population, are the most dramatic of Jembrana's events. Throughout the westernmost districts, it is still common to see a team of brawny, grey or pink buffalo pulling wooden carts filled with cacao, coffee or bananas. Mekepung began when farmers playfield raced their neighbors in plowing a field or in bringing the harvest home. The races soon became an event in themselves, and the cumbersome cikar carts were replaced by light, two-wheeled chariots.
Today, the races are organized by the regional government of Jembrana. All participants are members of a racing club (sekehe mekepung) and are divided into two divisions: a Western Block and an Eastern Block, with the Ijo Gading River that bisects Jembrana as the dividing line. These teams compete biannually, in the Regent's Cup Championship on the Sunday before Indonesian Independence Day in August, and the Governor's Cup Championship each September or October.
The buffaloes in each team are ranked prior to the races, and pitted against its counterpart on the other team. Two pairs run at a time, along a circuitous 4 km route. The team with the most winners takes the cup. Apart from this, the only immediate reward for winning is prestige, but owning a prize buffalo does eventually translate into money. A good race animal can fetch almost double the normal price, if its owner is willing to part with it.
If you are in Jembrana between August and October you can find out the time and place of the championships by visiting the Department of Tourism in Negara. You can also see races at other times of the year by commissioning a performance or by attending the rehearsals that take place every other Sunday morning.
find out about these options, contact the leaders of the sekehe mekepung.
I Ketut Suelem or I Ketut Dibia in the town of Banyubiru, five kilometers
west of Negara, or I Ketut Wenong of Delod Brawah, two kilometers southwest
of Tegalcangkring. Rehearsals may be infrequent during the rainy season
(November through March).
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