Manipur, rich in ancient traditions, culture and the art forms  is a delight to visit. It is amazing to see that despite the insurgency and violence which has resulted in military presence, the state still maintains purity  and skill in its arts. The breath taking landscapes, gorgeous weaves, beautiful islands, lakes and wildlife are a bonus to the traveller. 

I was impressed to see the whole pavement lit up by small solar powered lamps that enabled the vendors to carry on their trade.

If I were to name just the one thing that for me is unique and interesting about Imphal, it would be the 500 years old market run solely by women called Ima Keithal. Ima, translating to mother and Keithal meaning market, in other words mother’s market is a unique representation of the Manipuri community. 

Her face caught my attention and she was selling an indigenous / local country variety of bananas that I hadn’t eaten since my childhood. The market is filled with indigenous fruits and vegetables.

According to some historians the market has been in existence since the 16th century. Although it seems like an alien notion in a patriarchal society like India’s, this played a pivotal role in the history of Manipur. The market came into being due to the enforcement of the Lallup-Kaba, a forced labour system of Manipur that sent men to fight wars and cultivate in far away lands. The role to look after the family then rested solely on the women, who had to work on their own paddy fields and sell the produce. This led to the creation of the market.

Statue in Imphal dedicated to the women of Manipur who stood their grounds against the British administration.

 During the colonial period, the British administration tried to enforce aggressive commercial reforms. This led to several agitations and oppositions by the women traders of Ima Keithal.Post Independence, the all-women market became a centre for exchange of socio-political ideas. It has paved a way for the people to come together for socio-political issues that have shaped the history of Manipur and maintained a gender equality. It has provided the women with  economic empowerment. 

A homestead in the countryside in Moirang, Manipur.
Friendly but tough bargainers, you need to spend a bit of time talking to them to show your genuine interest in their ware. Then they loosen up and start showing you the products.

Today, the market is a thriving place selling everything from local produce to handicrafts. According to tradition, only married women can own and run the stalls at this market, a privilege that is passed on by one generation to the next. For those of you familiar with Cha tu chak market in Bangkok, Thailand the vibe is similar and yes like the one in Bangkok to actually do justice to the market you need an entire day or two to complete.

Despite the long running insurgency and military rule in the state, nothing has stopped the women from selling their wares here. In true essence of strength and solidarity that these women have really set an example of what we can achieve if we take a united stand and help each other out. For them it is a way of life and not just a political statement !!

Women working on their fields near Loktak lake, Manipur. This small plantation is growing Yam.

The vibrant colours and the hubbub of this market place is what people travel far and wide to witness in action. I had gone to the market with a specific agenda. I wanted to purchase a ceremonial basket and a shawl / wrap known as Rani fi. Both these items are used by the Meitei community of Manipur. I had seen the baskets being used at a wedding by these elegant women in striped sarongs known as phaneks with these light  gauzelike stoles with these small temple motifs. They all had their hair in a bun tied with red roses and an elongated pattern drawn on their foreheads with sandal paste. I am sharing two images below of what I can only describe as “ Simply Chic”.

The people of the Meitei community who are the predominant stall owners in the market worship the first king of Manipur and his wife. Small Pandals / alters of worship can be found scattered all over the market.

I found the basket seller who had them in various sizes right next to the stall that sold these gorgeous exotic fresh flowers for a price that seriously got me to contemplate importing them to Bangalore and Mumbai to sell. Nearby three or five vendors sold hand craved metal knives with wooden handles, lemons the size of a pomelo and dry fish in varied sizes all laid out in mats next to which the vendors squatted on the ground or on raised platforms created by the Government. The women aged from mid twenties to early sixties and carried on their conversation with each other while showing their wares to me. You can bargain but the women are seasoned sellers and hold out their own. 

She seemed so serene and in complete contrast to all the mayhem that was going on around her. She politely let me take her photo and asked if I wanted to buy an embroidered shawl. I did buy two pretty ones from her with patterns of peacocks and water lilies on them.

Then after chit chatting with a few vendors I headed to the textile section which was like  entering Alauddin’s cave. The colours, textures and variety was amazing. From the exquisite tribal hand woven Phanek (on a loin loom – you can see where the panels are joint) to little embroidered bags and shawls there was so much to explore. I never got to the Rani fi section, I had so many little parcels and since the market only accepts cash I was completely and happily swipped out. I recommend  you to wear comfortable walking shoes, carry a bottle of drinking water and cash. 

A weaver in Bishnapur shows off her latest edition off the loom. A thin gauze like tissue silk stole with little motifs known as Rani fi and worn by the women of the Meitei community. They give the ready pieces to the vendors in Ima Market to sell for them.

  I am told that early morning sightings of the women dressed in their traditional attires of phaneks (sarongs) and innaphis (shawls) settling down to open business for the day is a sight to see. Ima Keithal stands as a beacon of women’s empowerment in the face of hardship brought on by years of armed conflict. The market in all its glory is a treat for all those who seek culturally rich experiences.

The flower vendors had lilies, lotuses, tiny orchids, marigolds, pansies among a host of other flora and little green berries that I didn’t recognise. In the background you can see a bit of the stall that sold the bamboo mats and baskets from where I purchased a ceremonial basket known as Phiruk.


All images belong to Curtain Call Adventures