Manipur’s Ima Keithel: The world’s largest all-women market

Ima Keithel Market in Imphal houses over 5,000 women vendors. Only married women can become sellers in the market set up in 1533 AD. Since then, generations of women, nominated by their family’s elders, have been trading at Manipur’s commercial hub

US Anu
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Women vendors at Ima Keithel

Women vendors at Ima Keithel

Manipur is home to the world’s largest all-women market where one can buy anything from rice and dried fish to fresh groceries, fabrics, handicrafts and almost every household item. Ima Keithel, the Meitei word for mothers’ market, was set up in 1533 AD and houses over 5,000 women vendors now.

Men are allowed to enter Ima Market only as customers, porters, and guards or to serve tea and snacks to the sellers. 

According to the local custom, only married women can be a vendor in the market. A retiring vendor nominates a successor, usually a relative, to carry on the trade. 

As a result, generations of women have been running the show at Ima Market. Apart from being a commercial centre, it is also a popular tourist attraction in Manipur. The market has shifted its location within the city of Imphal over the years and is now located in Khawairaband Bazaar in Imphal.

The local women dress in traditional Manipuri 'phaneks' (long skirts) and 'innaphis' (drapes similar to shawls), with the vibrant colours of their attire adding to the lively atmosphere of the marketplace. There's a sense of pride and cultural richness as women sell their goods at the 500-year-old Ima Market.

The market houses a shrine of Ima Imoinu (also Emoinu) the Meitei goddess of wealth, peace and prosperity. Women vendors pay obeisance and offerings at the shrine before opening their shop every morning. 

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Ima Market is segmented into four distinct areas: the southeastern quadrant, specializing in metal goods; the northeastern quadrant, dominated by rice traders; the southwestern quadrant, bustling with fishmongers; and the northwest, known for its paddy vendors. 

household goods
The market was first set up in 1533 AD. Pic: Flickr

A long stretch traversing the market is lined with stalls selling clothes and fabrics. Then there are sections for handmade items like pottery, Kauna grass bags and household wares, bamboo products, hand-woven silks etc. 

Traditionally, each section was allocated to specific clans and overseen by the eldest woman of each clan. Today, however, elections are held to elect the leader.

History of Ima Keithel Market

Ima Market traces its roots to the 16th century when the local Kangleipak King imposed 'Lallup-Kaba' – a forced labour policy that made it mandatory for Manipuri men to work outside the state’s borders. Men had to take up farming and and were trained to become warriors as Manipur faced threats from bordering Myanmar. The policy was first introduced by Kangleipak King Loyumba (1074-1112 AD) and implemented by subsequent rulers as and when they wished. 

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The women looked after the family, cultivated crops, and handcrafted household items while men worked away. They began to barter crops like paddy and vegetables, fish and other goods, leading to the creation of the all-women market where they could also form social bonds besides selling their products to sustain livelihoods.

The Ima Keithel Market in Imphal. Pic: Manipur Government

Even after the abolition of the Lallup-Kaba system in 1892, other forms of forced labour continued well into the 20th century. Among these was the Potang system, employed to send men forcefully for military service.

Ima Market, however, is not just a marketplace. It symbolizes feminism and the strength of women, who waged protests against the system whenever needed. 

During the British rule, the administration tried to change Manipur's commercial landscape by exploiting the natural resources and allowing external traders to operate within Manipur. The Manipuri women vehemently opposed the reforms in a movement known as Nupi Lan (Women’s War), which erupted in 1939. 

fish vendors
A section of the market is dedicated to fish vendors. Pic: Flickr

Throughout Nupi Lan, the female traders of the Ima Market organized protests, gatherings, marches, and blockades, demanding changes to the policies. Later, Manipuri men also joined them. Nupi Lan stopped with the declaration of the Second World War. After Independence, the traditional organization of the market has remained intact.

(US Anu is a Madurai-based writer. She specialises in stories around human interest, environment and art and culture.)

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