Ima Keithal market in Imphal serves as a great example of the business skills of local Manipuri women who have been trading here for more than 500 years. Check out why the market is unique!
Amid the hustle-bustle of the capital city of Manipur, Imphal, lies the 500-year-old Ima Keithal market, the oldest and largest all-women market of Asia, and possibly, the world! Why? Because the market has more than 5,000 traders, all women, who come here to set up their stalls selling clothes, fruits, vegetables, etc. One of the major reasons why this is not just common and your usual local market is because this market has seen a lot of political and social rebellions and movements.
Going back to the 16th century, as the exact origin of this market is unknown, brings us the history of this place where a forced labour system called ‘Lallup-Kaba’ was in place. According to this system, the men of the Meitei community had to go for cultivation in the faraway lands and fight wars. On the other hand, the women used to stay in the villages and would work in their paddy fields while taking care of their household and selling their farm produce in improvised and unorganized markets. Historians believe that this is how the tradition of women playing a major role in the markets started.
What happened during the British era?
As per the historical records, the British, in 1891, had imposed various aggressive commercial reforms in the state where the local produces were exported to various British battalions stationed near Manipur, and the requirements of locals were completely ignored. The women of the state could not take this and started Nupi Lan (Women’s war) in 1939. As the war began, the traders of the Ima Keithal organized meetings, agitations and demanded changes in the economic policies to the local ruler, but he was already in the control of the English.
To ruin the movement, the British also tried to sell the Ima Keithals’ buildings to foreigners and external buyers, but it was because of these women that the market got saved. The Nupi Lan continued till the second World War when Manipur became a war zone.
A place of great exchange
Like the pre-independent era, even in the post-era, the market continued to become a place for exchanging socio-political ideas. Since the development of print media wasn’t on the rise, people from all over the state used to visit the market to gather information regarding what was happening around them. It will not be wrong to say that since then, women have been the backbone of the local economy of Imphal!
Quite literally meaning, ‘Mother’s market’, which is also lovingly called ‘Queen of Market’ by Manipuris, Ima Keithal has been serving as a ground for married women to establish their stalls of traditional handicrafts, local produce, dried fish, and the popular Morok chilli. The strange fact is that only married women are allowed to involve in the trade here and the business is passed on from one generation of women to another.
Many women, however, also come from far-off places to get a space here to start the trade. The biggest support for these traders is the union that helps them with finance, where women can borrow money to purchase goods and can pay it later to the union. The popularity of this market, which is spread in an area of 3.5 km and divided into three main buildings, also attracts the tourist crowd. After changing a lot of places in Imphal, the market is now situated at Khwairamband Bazaar.
Though the COVID-19 first wave had brought closure to this market, it was opened by the government in 2021. So, currently, you can observe the Manipuri women dressed in traditional Phaneks (sarongs) and Innaphis (shawls), doing their businesses throughout the day as they keep the nights just for the family-time!
Also Read: Commercial Street market of Bengaluru is a shopping paradise amid the hustle-bustle of the city!
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