Revisiting Ima Keithel, World’s Largest All Women Market- 5000 Women in a 500 year old Market

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Ima Keithel, Manipur, Imphal, Mothers Market, Priyanka Koijam, Nerdy Adventuress

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.

Ima Keithel, Manipur, Imphal, Mothers Market, Priyanka Koijam, Nerdy Adventuress, north east India, Things to do in Imphal, manipur tourism, women empowerment

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!

Ima Keithel, Manipur, Imphal, Mothers Market, Priyanka Koijam, Nerdy Adventuress, north east India, Things to do in Imphal, manipur tourism, women empowerment, meitei woman

Ima Keithel, Manipur, Imphal, Mothers Market, Priyanka Koijam, Nerdy Adventuress, north east India, Things to do in Imphal, manipur tourism, women empowerment, meitei woman

Ima Keithel, Manipur, Imphal, Mothers Market, Priyanka Koijam, Nerdy Adventuress, north east India, Things to do in Imphal, manipur tourism, women empowerment, meitei woman

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, Manipur, Imphal, Mothers Market, Priyanka Koijam, Nerdy Adventuress, north east India, Things to do in Imphal, manipur tourism, women empowerment, meitei woman

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.

Ima Keithel, Manipur, Imphal, Mothers Market, Priyanka Koijam, Nerdy Adventuress, north east India, Things to do in Imphal, manipur tourism, women empowerment, meitei woman

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.

Ima Keithel, Manipur, Imphal, Mothers Market, Priyanka Koijam, Nerdy Adventuress, north east India, Things to do in Imphal, manipur tourism, women empowerment, meitei woman

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).

Ima Keithel, Manipur, Imphal, Mothers Market, Priyanka Koijam, Nerdy Adventuress, north east India, Things to do in Imphal, manipur tourism, women empowerment, meitei woman

Ima Keithel, Manipur, Imphal, Mothers Market, Priyanka Koijam, Nerdy Adventuress, north east India, Things to do in Imphal, manipur tourism, women empowerment, meitei woman

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.

Ima Keithel, Manipur, Imphal, Mothers Market, Priyanka Koijam, Nerdy Adventuress, north east India, Things to do in Imphal, manipur tourism, women empowerment, meitei woman

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. 🙂

 

 

 

20 Comments
  • Dr.Padma

    Reply

    Wonderful write-up.you have done it again and that too on women’s Day.well done

    • Priyanka

      Thank You and I am so glad you liked it! 🙂 More stories coming up soon.

  • Priya

    Reply

    The best post to read on Women’s Day. It’s great to see something that truely depicts Women Empowerment.

    • Priyanka

      Thanks Priya! To me Ima Keithel represents what Women Empowerment means and why we celebrate Women’s Day! 🙂 Thank you again for reading.

  • Aditya

    Reply

    Wonderful read! Cheers to these strong women who were feminists in much more patriachal society, much before today’s feminists! Happy women’s day!

    • Priyanka

      Glad you enjoyed reading it Aditya! Cheers to all the Strong Women. <3

  • LM

    Reply

    Nice to read Priyanka’s write up on Ima Keithel. Love to read more in coming days.

    • Priyanka

      More stories from #MyManipur (#OurManipur)coming up in the next few days! 😀

  • sushil kumar chohan

    Reply

    Very interesting and informatively readable

    • Priyanka

      I am glad you enjoyed reading it! 🙂

  • Moitreyee

    Reply

    Wonderful write up.

    True portrayal of women power.

    • Priyanka

      Thank you! More power to us!!! 😀 <3

  • Vijay Nair

    Reply

    Priyanka, very well written. Despite having travelled most of East, never knew such a place existed… there is always more to discover.
    Lovely article on a apt day. Keep it up

    • Priyanka

      Thank you Vijay uncle!! Yes, North East is brimming with stories and it is time the rest of the World hears about it as well! 🙂

  • Tripidee

    Reply

    This is so great! I didn’t know an all women market existed. Thanks for sharing a new corner of the world with me!

    • Priyanka

      Thank you! I am glad I could share a piece of my culture with you! More stories from North East especially Manipur coming up soon! Stay tuned! 🙂

  • Hardeep Kajal

    Reply

    Wonderful! Keep up the good work ?

    • Priyanka

      Thanks so much Hardeep! 🙂

  • Panchtapa

    Reply

    Thanks for sharing this. I always loved the strong attitude of north eastern women and I am proud to be one. Very well written on the right time ?

    • Priyanka

      Thanks Pancha!!! Same here. I am so proud to be from North East India. And proud to be a woman as well! 🙂 <3

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