North-east India is among the most beautiful places in Asia. So alluring, so expressive! We all know that. But did you know that in Manipur’s capital city Imphal, there is a market that almost dates back to the 16th Century and is run by only women. It is known as ‘Ima Keithel’ or the Mother’s Market. It is perhaps the only one of its kind in Asia, or even in the world.
This quintessential Mother’s Market is a unique hotspot that is delightful and clamorous at the same time. As you enter you will get a whiff of exceptional amalgamation of aromas that is a concoction of culturally created fragrances of Manipuri native cuisines. The market premises is like an elaborate food plaza, where women with simple shops and homely exuberance squat cross-legged in their own niche, devoid of any visible demarcations. In a true sense, it is a massive assemblage of independent women sitting on elevated platforms surrounded with their respective piles of products. This spectacular market is run by somewhat 3000 ima’s (Mother’s). The market is divided by a road, so on one side they sell vegetables, fruits, fish, and groceries, while on the other side they sell household items, fabrics, and pottery. This astounding group of mostly old, middle-aged, and a few young women, bunch up everyday to sell a rich range of delightful rustic merchandise. They also sell jewelry items, rice products, local handicrafts, dolls, toys, knives, innumerable cane and bamboo products.
Ima Keithel is a great tourist attraction and a haven for photo-ops. It is so popular because it is the only all-women market complex which represents the mobility and economic participation of the Manipuri women. History has proved Manipuri women have always stood up for their rights and equality, stood up to the government. In 1904, they resisted against the British imposition of forced labor laws. In 1939, they agitated against a famine that was caused by British exportation of local harvests. They even stood up against the military force unarmed in their ‘Nupi Lan’ i.e. Women’s war. They are not feared to ask for equal pay and opportunity, and safety at their workplaces. They are not scared of sexual harassment at places of work. This authority at the marketplace is an enduring symbol of women empowerment, and rightly so, they took over responsibilities when their men had to leave to fight the wars with the Chinese and Burmese, and maybe that was the best that ever happened to them because it seems like the best solution. They have chased the men out and away.
The market is not just a place of commerce, but displays a wide range of local culture, biodiversity and information. They have products like large water beetles and thirty different kinds of edible insects. The food products sold there are mostly sourced from the small plantations and nearby jungles. While cotton clothes, silks, woollens, handicrafts and traditional costumes come from within Manipur, some of it also comes from the neighboring states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and even Myanmar, through the porous border. Simplicity is the USP of this market. During lean hours in the day women discuss bleak and banal matters and this never-ending gossips and amicably sharing tidbits keeps both educated and uneducated women aware and empowered. Ima Keithel has its own set of unwritten rules that are followed obediently by the women. Despite waves of invaders and conquerors who besieged the region over the years, the women continue to control the local economy on their own terms. There is trust and faith in the collective strength of the women vendors demonstrated over and over again.
In a nutshell, this market suggests of the history of women’s movement in the state of Manipur, their fight for equal rights and fair treatment, and their small and big victories. The success of the Mothers' Market is proof that empowered women are an essential element of a successful society.