In 2016, I wrote an article for Indiatimes.com on Ima Keithel or Mother’s Market.
Soon after that I was flooded with shopping lists from friends who wanted something or another from Manipur. Finally, I made a trip back home. This time completely armed with a shopping list and my camera.
The origin of Ima Keithal can be traced back to the 16th century when a labour system was forcefully imposed in Manipur. This system forced the male members of the Meitei community to work in faraway lands or fight wars, leaving the women behind in the villages. It was then, the women decided to take matters in their own hands and started supporting their household. From taking care of their home to weaving handlooms, making handicrafts, working in the fields and selling their goods, these women did it all. Eventually they all came together to form Ima Keithel.
To be honest, entering Ima Keithel can be very overwhelming if you are visiting for the first time. It isn’t as noisy as a “Fish Market”. I mean, Fish sellers are part of the market, but so are the Fruit sellers, Vegetable sellers, the Snack sellers, the Ornament sellers, Handloom sellers, Handicraft sellers etc. – 5000 sellers under one roof selling everything you would ever need and all of them WOMEN!
So yes, fish market is an understatement. It is more like an open arena full of haggling customers, giggling old women, strong smell of fish and bamboo shoot and a splash of colours everywhere!
This market in the heart of Imphal has been a symbol of women empowerment since its inception. When the British tried to take over the economic policies and exploit the locals, it was these women who took it upon themselves to form the Nupi Lal or the War of Women and shook the British empire with their protest.
Smiling through their betel stained teeth, draped in colourful phanek with sandalwood on their forehead, these strong women line up to sell their goods every day. But between selling their wares and chit chatting about their daughter-in-law’s cooking, there were women who were also discussing politics and talking about the social issues. This has for generations been a place for information exchange and a platform to spread awareness among women.
Ima Keithel is a place where women despite religion and caste differences come together every day to run their shop. A place where you can actually see what equality means. Not gender equality of course! Because men are strictly not allowed to set up shop here. They are however, welcome to come and buy what they like.
I was already exhausted from the shopping and moved to the fringes of the market to rest when a curious old lady looked at my huge camera and asked, “Nung kari taurigay?” (What are you doing?)
She was sitting next to two decorated idols and saw me looking at them and said, “They are the Lai (or God) of the market. Keithel Lairembi and Keithel Lairemba.” I sat next to her and told her what I was doing there. She in turn told me about how these Gods bless and protect the market.
This is another thing you will notice about Manipuris, especially Meiteis (the majority ethnic group of Manipur), they have a lot of Gods or Lai. I mean, there is even a God associated with the Game of Polo!! More about it in another post though. There are Hindu Gods and then there are Home Gods, Nature Gods, Ancestral Gods etc. Even though Hinduism was adopted and spread in the valley generations ago, traces of the animistic practices can still be felt and seen.
Interestingly, and traditionally, only married women are allowed to set shop here which is passed down from one generation to another. And the successor continues to sell the exact same wares as her mother (or mother-in-law).
After hours, I was finally done with my shopping and photographing but continued to roam around aimlessly. Pondering.
Pondering about how in one part of my country, women are disrespected and abused every day. A place where Rapes are no longer front-page news, and timely justice is unheard of. We live in a patriarchy society that has thrived for centuries that continues to degrade the value of women. And then, there are these women, who collectively, have been fighting societal norms and injustice every day for centuries and continue to be a symbol of Strength and Empowerment.
If you ask me, what is the one thing you must do in Imphal (which is the capital of Manipur), I will tell you to go and experience the joy of shopping at Ima Keithel. To be honest, being here is an experience by itself. It is a delight for all your senses and a gist of what Manipuri culture is all about.
With 5000 Women, this is not just the World’s Largest ‘All Women Marketplace’, but a celebration of Women’s Achievement as well.
So, what do you think? Would like to visit Ima Keithel?
If you have any queries or comments, do please share it in the comments section. 🙂