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History as an entrée: The story of Udupi Brinjal or Gulla

The Udupi Brinjal or Gulla is an heirloom vegetable that is hundreds of years old and also has a GI tag to protect its uniqueness.

Published: 30th August 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th August 2020 05:57 PM   |  A+A-

Mattu Gulla

On our last visit to Udupi, we came across a unique variety of brinjal that had a shiny sticker that read—first grade. Intrigued, we asked the shopkeeper about it and he told us that this was the Gullas grown in the nearby Mattu village, being branded especially to distinguish it from the many imitations available. It was worth getting to know more. 

Spiritual past

The Mattu Gulla is large, round brinjal. Gulla means round in Tulu, the local language. It has light green stripes, thin skin and a good amount of pulp with a few seeds. The stalk has a few thorns, and this is an aspect that makes it distinct from other Gullas. It is said that saint Vaadiraja Thirta (1480-1600) used to offer a prasad called Hayagreeva Maddi (made with Bengal gram, jaggery, ghee and grated coconut) to Lord Hayagreeva (a white horse) every day.

He would keep the Maddi on his head and the lord would eat some of it and leave the rest for Vaadiraja. Some of the other devotees who were jealous plotted against Vadiraja and mixed poison in the Maddi one day. That day the horse firstly did not come. When Vadiraja prayed, it appeared but ate the whole Maddi and did not leave anything for Vadiraja. The horse turned blue as did the idol of Lord Krishna at Udupi and Vadiraja was heartbroken. Shocked and disturbed by the events, Vadiraja had a dream that night where Hayagreeva explained what happened and suggested a remedy to remove the poison.

Handing over a few seeds of brinjal, Hayagreeva asked for them to be given to the Brahmins in Mattu and said that the plant would grow in 48 days. The brinjals were cooked and offered to Hayagreeva for 48 days after which the poison receded.  In her book, Udupi Cuisine, author UB Rajalakshmi says, ‘The Gulla has a property called nanju which is, perhaps referred to as poison. When the Gulla is immersed in water for some time, the water turns blackish and the Gulla loses its astringent taste and gains a new taste and flavour.” The tradition of offering the first crop to Lord Krishna in Udupi continues to date.

 illustrations of Saint Vadiraja and Udupi Krishna, by Bindu Gopal Rao

Stories continue

Interestingly, there is another story associated with the Gulla and this has a connection with Shravanabelagola, a town in Hassan district that is home to the 57-foot tall statue of Lord Bahubali. Post the completion of the statue in 981 AD, the head anointing or mahamastabhisheka ceremony was organised. This ceremony now happens once in 12 years. When Chamundaraya, the minister of King Gangaraya of the Ganga Dynasty, started to pour the milk on the statue’s head, it would not flow below the navel despite several attempts.

It was then that an old woman turned up with a Gulla whose insides were scooped to hold some milk which she requested that she pour on the statue’s head. Disdainful, he allowed her and what happened was amazing. The milk not just flowed below the navel but also gushed down to create a beautiful white pond. Ratna Rajaiah in her book Secrets of Health from the Indian Kitchen says, ‘It was then that Chamundaraya realised that it was his own conceit about being the creator of this magnificent statue that had been an obstacle to the abhisheka.’ While there are theories that the old woman was Goddess Padmawati or the celestial nymph Kushmandini, there is a statue of the old woman holding a Gulla opposite the main entrance of the complex.

Food Tales

One of the popular dishes made with the Gulla is sambhar, which is also a must during the biennial Paryaya festival in Udupi, a religious event marking the transfer of worship and management of Udupi Sri Krishna temple from one seer to another of the eight maths.Another one made using the Gulla is stuffed brinjal called Gulla Puddi Sagley as well as Gulla Fritters or Gulla Baji. The special Gulla is grown in Mattu, Kaipunjalu, Katapady, Kote, Pangala, Alinja, Ambadi and Uliyaragoli in Udupi and has a Geographical Indication (GI) tag.  Do check out the Gulla the next time you are in Udupi, it is a revelation in more than one ways. 



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