Along the lanes of Manipur’s Ima Keithel, the largest ever women only market

ima keithel featured

In the hustle and bustle of its vibe and the scenery of vibrantly organised chaos, Ima Keithel is every bit akin to what you would expect to encounter at any typical market anywhere in India. From the farm fresh produce of fruits and vegetables to handicrafts and textiles that boast of an enduring legacy and including of course the quintessentially Indian identity of the really pungent spices, wares sit decked in all their typical glory across the multiple stalls manned by some 5000 vendors in this bazaar that sits at the very heart of the Indian state of Manipur, as a proud manifestation of its identity. But what is there to rave about a market that sounds no more- or less remarkable than what the standard experience of the great Indian bazaar phenomenon has come to encompass, you ask? The answer here lies in a peculiarity that grants Ima Keithel an exclusive distinction not just within the realm of travelogue capturing the charms that lay within the diversity of a land as starkly Indian as possible but also seats it in a uniqueity that makes it perhaps the only one of its kind in the world. For, Ima Keithel is run wholly and exclusively by women, a facet so characteristic of this particular identity that has even lent it its name.

Translating literally to Mother’s Market, this 500 year old congregating place of the buyers and the sellers that sprawls across the heartland of Manipur’s capital city of Imphal is one that partakes of a rich history, continued effectively even to the present date when it has not ceased to hold any less importance. The largest all women market in Asia and probably also in the world, Ima Keithel dates back to the 16th century and in its rich historical tradition, has gained attention over the years for indeed the diverse identity of it but also for the premises that led to the birth of it. The all women criteria that today grants Ima Keithel its characteristic place of proud distinction hasn’t however been one that was a free expression of choice. It rather emerged out of a need that left the Manipuri females of that time with no alternative but to collectively organise themselves into a community of womenfolk who would come to dictate terms in the market- a place traditionally considered to be the domain of men. For the better though, for this characteristic feature that today sets apart the so famous Mother’s Market from the hundreds and thousands of bazaars India comes teeming in, with a show of women empowerment not easily discernible in many parts of the world.

The outcome of a forced labour system that was imposed in Manipur in 1533, Ima Keithel has thrived since then, from being a marketplace with a few stalls to today being large enough to induce worldwide comparisions, with some 5000- 6000 women engaging daily in the trade of essentials at this market housed within the Khawairamband Bazaar. Housed in three large buildings as well as a large open market, the market sprawls across either side of the road with stalls allowed to be set up by only those women who have been married at least once. Beginning under the lallup-kaban setup that required Meitei men to work in distant lands or to serve in the army leaving therefore the women with having to tend to the household in all aspects of it, Mother’s Market has expanded over the years to be an important center of trade and economic activity as well as emerge as a tourist hotspot owing to both its history and diversity.

But it isn’t in just its growth out of nascency that Ima Keithel has had emerged victorious through struggle. Throughout the centuries old slice of history that has shaped this particular jaunt of the mothers in Manipur, the market has grown through strife. As a culmination of improvised markets, the Ima Keithel was set up around 1580 at the aegis of the then monarch of the Kangleipak Kingdom, that Manipur was at that time when royalty was the order of the day. Flourishing under royal patronage in the years that followed, the market came to be a major source of sustenance for the households in the villages, continuing well into the 20th century as the primary permanent market in the region. But things started going uphill from the later part of the 19th century, precisely in 1891 when the British administration attempted to impose economic and political reform in Manipur, thereby disrupting the functioning of the market. The women of Ima Keithel responded by rising in agitation against the British in an organised manner, an event that is referred to in history as Nupi Lan or the women’s war. The ensuing years of the war saw the women who had lived their lives intricately intertwined with the market, struggle to protect its identity and legacy, as the British tried selling off the market buildings. Persisting in their efforts to stave off attempts to encroach upon what had by then elevated from being merely a marketplace to be the epitome of the cultural identity and historical heritage of Manipur, this war by the women continued well until the Second World War and achieved what it set out to do- not letting a centuries old living institution die at the hands of fate.

But the spirit of resistance that Ima Keithel had inherited from its origin, and that which was only furthered by the Nupi Lan movement did even more to endow this iconic market with its revered status, one that holds significance in not just its physical distinction of being female dominated but also in the ideals it has come to emulate over the years. Like the course of it throughout history, Ima Keithel has also seen shifts of its location within the city of Imphal to comprise of three markets namely Laxmi market, Purana market and New market. After Indian independence, Ima Keithel has undergone a sea of changes. Nevertheless, the market continues to be pestered by problems of insurgency, socio-economic issues et al, which however has not been able to affect adversely the continuation of this unique way of life. Rather, the Ima Keithel has only gone on to empower women even further over the decades, as protests continue unabated through slogan inscribed placards over various issues that continue to plague society at large. In such manifestations, the Ima Keithel indeed encompasses the true spirit of something that encompasses wholeheartedly the universal power yielded by the women, mothers particularly- of seeing society through the toughest of times with a seeming ease that can stem only of the grit and grief of the feminine.