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. 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.
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.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.
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 !!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”.
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.
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 out of cash. I recommend future visitor to wear comfortable walking shoes, carry a bottle of drinking water and cash.
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.All images belong to Curtain Call Adventures