Mother’s market

Imphal’s historical Ima Keithel is believed to be the largest all-women market in Asia and has become a true symbol of women empowerment, writes Purnima Sharma

It’s easy to fall prey to her charming smile. “Yeh lo kharido, ‘bonnie’ karna hai,” she coaxes you in broken Hindi to buy something from her stall in return for the favour she’s done you — posed and smiled for a photograph when you asked permission to click her picture. Meet the beautiful 82-year-old Noyon Sana who has been selling traditional textiles at the world-famous Ima Market of Imphal since the 1940s.     

At the keithel, do also look out for pouch-like bags that Manipuri women carry on special occasions.
At the keithel, do also look out for pouch-like bags that Manipuri women carry on special occasions.

And sure enough, right from the moment one touches down in the capital city of Manipur or, ‘the jewelled land’, this is one destination that everyone makes a beeline for. First-timers are most likely to, at first glance, be overwhelmed by the crowds that throng the place but after the first few moments, the spirit of the keithel (market) envelops you as you climb the steps towards the market housed in a colonnaded hall-like structure.

For the uninitiated, Imphal’s historical Ima Keithel or Mother’s Market is believed to be the largest all-women market in Asia. As our friend in Imphal, Bidyananda Hanjabam, proudly tells us, “This is a true symbol of women empowerment —- there are more than 5,000 stalls that are run exclusively by women. Men can come here to shop but are not allowed to sell. If they try to, the women will drive them away.”

The camaraderie shared by the women here is amazing and warm. And it is apparent when Noyon Sana’s ‘neighbour’ comes to her aid — to show me her collection of mufflers and shawls that I ask for. I pick up one stole in a vibrant red and black design that, as the matriarch says, is a “typical Manipuri design”. I pick it up for Rs 150. Bargaining is par for the course here but the ladies will not reduce more than Rs 20-30 of the price they quote.

Sauntering on, taking in the myriad flavours of the place, I strike up a conversation with two young tourism students — Henry and Bikram — I meet here. The market, they say, goes back to about four centuries! When men would go either for war or work in faraway lands, women would look after the house and even tend to the fields. They would sell the extra produce in the marketplace to earn money. That’s how such keithels came up. And slowly, women started playing a vital role in the state’s economy,” the two say proudly.

A woman’s world

A look around at the keithel sure reiterates the fact that women hold an important place in society. As Roshni Karki who is visiting her parents here in Imphal says, “People from every strata of society come here to shop for every occasion. We even do our wedding shopping from here — it’s like a family tradition for almost everyone in Imphal.”

We stop at Chandralekha’s stall to look at her collection of wares right from lipsticks to faux eyelashes, kajal sticks, blushers, bindis and other knick-knacks. Having set up shop here in 2010, the 42-year-old ema (mother) says she loves her work because her husband stays busy with his business and children with their studies. Soon I am in the section selling phaneks (sarongs) and innaphis (shawls) that is the traditional dress of Manipuri women. And the huge, maze-like market has a mind-boggling variety to offer. Dhaneshwari catches my eye and as she smiles, I stop for a chat. Even though language, with some of the ladies, could be a problem, there are many others who will happily turn translators for you. Understanding the fact that I am looking for a simple phanek in cotton, she opens out several of them — ones with a thin, simple border cost around Rs 200 while the ones that seem akin to the temple borders of Kanjeevaram silk sarees come for around Rs 350. Of course, there are phaneks in silk as well boasting beautiful stripes and stunningly embroidered borders that can be picked up for around Rs 1,200. These sarong-like fabrics, one must state, come in two pieces that you have to then get stitched. For those not familiar with the way they are worn, the ladies here will patiently explain the way they can be wrapped around.

At the keithel, do also look out for pouch-like bags that Manipuri women carry on special occasions. These sequinned purses come in a variety of hues and cost around Rs 350. Depending on the material used, they can be picked up for even around Rs 150 and make excellent souvenirs and gifts.  

Ima Keithel is not just about clothes but is also the go-to place for spices, fresh fruits and vegetables, bamboo, cane and clay utensils, too.

Bonds of sisterhood

As we take a break and settle for a brief chat with Memchoubi, one can almost feel envious about the bonds of sisterhood the women here share. “Besides selling our wares, we spend our day having fun, sharing confidences, gossiping and giving moral support to those who need it,” says the 68-year-old. And needless to say, at this vibrant ‘matriarch of markets’, these ladies are a picture of confidence, spunk and spirit who could well give lessons in economic independence and women empowerment to many.

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