A sneak peek into the 500 year old Asia’s largest women run market in Manipur

Popularly known as ‘Mother’s Market’, Ima Keithel is Asia’s largest all-women market, where all the stalls are run exclusively by women. In Manipuri, Ima means mother and Keithel means market. This market is run by only married women and has 4000 shopkeepers.

Sight of one of the busiest, most colorful and unique Ima Keithel Women Market in Imphal – capital of Manipur state.

Located in the heart of Imphal, in the Indian state of Manipur, the 500-year-old vibrant bazaar has 4,000-odd local women trading with thousands of customers each day. The market also serves as a meeting ground for discussions on important social and political issues of the state.

Strangely the market tends to be an all women market with over 4000 shop keepers and not having one man among them.

After all, it has something for everyone. From the small dried fish ngari, to hand-woven woollens, to miniature Manipuri dolls, traditional phaneks (sarong-like skirts worn by Meithei Manipuri women), kitchen utensils, exotic vegetables, smelly bamboo shoot, metal craft, to crazy red chilies umorok, and innephis (stoles/dupattas),indigenous herbs and bangles, it has everything.

Ima Keithel stands as a beacon of women’s empowerment in the face of untold hardship brought on by years of armed conflict. This 500 year old market “Ima Keithel” in Imphal Manipur is Asia’s Largest Women Run Market where a man can buy but can never sell. It is run by only married woman as because the Manipuri men spent months on the battlefield and the woman took it upon themselves to sustain the families.

Even as recent as 2003, the local government planned to take down the market and replace it with a modern supermarket, but the association of women traders protested the decision and eventually had their way. The place is a melting pot of diversity – with traders hailing from various ethnic groups and religions, and tourists from various parts of the world.

Sadly the building that housed ima keithal had collapsed when earthquake of 6.7 hit Imphal in January 2016. But that didn’t affect the market in any way and after all the odds the women stood still, and market still flourishes like before.

Studies show that most of the traders at the market earn anywhere between INR 73,000 to INR 200,000 ($1,000 to $3,000) a year. “Even though the women sell so much, they don’t earn much as most of their earnings go for payment for the goods they sell, the raw materials and logistics,” explained Dr. Yumkhaibam Shyam Singh, Associate Professor of History at Imphal College. “The cost of transportation is high; as a result these women hardly get a good margin.” And according to independent researcher Dr. Shristi Pukhrem, the market is still under threat from “large-scale penetration of cheap products and new technologies from elsewhere in India and other countries.”

Scholars believe that the market dates back to the 16th century. Research states that the market was a result of the enforcement of the Lallup-Kaba, an ancient forced labour system in Manipur that sent men of the Meitei community to cultivate faraway lands and fight wars. The women used to work in the paddy fields, take care of the household and sell their farm produce in improvised markets. This led to the creation of markets where women played a central role.

The women of Ima Keithal have formed a union that manages the market and runs a credit system for the women traders. They can borrow money to purchase goods and pay it back to the union later. The Shopkeepers earn between Rs. 73K & 200K Annually. The annual turnover of the Mother’s Market is Rs. 40-50 Crores.

While the rest of India is struggling for the dignity of women, Ima Keithal, a market tucked away in the far North East of India continues to be a beautiful example of women empowerment and equality.

Here are some pictures representing the versatility and true colors of the market-

Each of them is Mary Kom in their own way.

 

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