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At first glance, Ima Keithel is much like any other market. Lines of vendors are here from dusk until dawn, eagerly flogging everything from fresh fruit to fish and fabrics.
But after walking through its huge network of more than 5,000 stalls spread across three multi-story buildings and a sea of surrounding tin shacks, one unique aspect becomes hard to ignore: every single trader, without exception, is a woman.
“We are just like family, we’re sisters,” says Meilani Chingangbam, a 65-year-old who has been selling religious ritual products like incense and shrine decorations at the market since 2002. “It’s a beautiful place to work. Everyone is trusting and kind.”
Ima Keithel – meaning “mother’s market” in the local Meitei language – in Imphal, the capital of India’s northeastern state of Manipur, is said to be the largest women-only market in the world. Men can enter the space – but only to buy goods, to work as porters or guards or to provide the women with cups of milky chai.
During the early morning rush, the scent of eromba, a local dish of mashed potato, bamboo shoots and dried fish chutney, sizzles through the air. In one corner, a group of matriarchs are huddled around discussing problems with delayed deliveries and subpar produce.
All the while, women stop by to leave offerings at the shrine of Ima Imoinu, the goddess of wealth and business and the market’s main protector.
The crowded aisles are stacked high with all manner of delightful treasures: fragrant pinewood and jade-colored betel nut leaves, handcrafted pottery and bamboo baskets, fine silken blankets and rugs in technicolor hues.
Filling the spaces in between them are rows of traders wearing vibrant pink, yellow, red and green shawls, some with Manipuri chandon marks on their foreheads, others wrapped in Muslim head scarves.
“You can get absolutely anything you could dream of here,” says Lina Moirangthem, a local Meitei tour guide. “The market is cheap and right in the heart of the city. The entire state’s economy practically runs thanks to these women.”
Per custom, only women who are married can officially trade in the market, and to gain a space in the official area, a woman must be nominated by a retiring vendor, who will usually choose a successor she is related to like a sister, daughter or cousin.
Priya Kharaibam, for example, is the third generation of her family’s pottery traders at Ima Keithel, following on from her grandmother. “I am proud to run the family business,” says the 34-year-old, flanked by a wall of terracotta pots.
The creation of Ima Keithel dates back to the 16th century Kangleipak Kingdom, when it began as a makeshift, open-air market for bartering crops. To bolster the war efforts against the neighboring Burmese and Chinese, in 1533 conscription was made mandatory in Manipur and all men were trained as warriors from a young age to protect the kingdom’s perimeters, which run along the border with Myanmar.
It was left, then, for the women to run the city.
“The market was run by women of the state in open air,” says Lokendra Arambam, a former scholar of the region’s precolonial period at Manipur University. “It began as an all-female activity of selling fish, vegetables and other economic products.”
Thanks to Imphal’s easily-accessible, strategic position at the center of Manipur, the city gradually grew to become the economic hub of the region, and the women of Ima Keithel became more and more influential.
But beyond the day-to-day business trading and exchange, the hardy matriarchs of Ima Keithel have also played a crucial role in social and political activism in Manipur throughout the 500-year-old history of the market right up to this day.
In 1891, for example, the women’s protests forced a backtrack on reforms introduced by the British colonizers that favored external trade over them. In 1939, angered at the British policy of exporting local rice to other parts of India, they confronted the army in what was the Anishuba Nupilan, or Second Women’s War – and won.
More recently, when the state government announced plans to build a shopping mall on the market’s site in 2003, they organized weeks-long mass strikes, bringing the economy to a standstill and forcing a reversal. Even now, the women hold regular protests to exert influence, and their input has a serious sway on local elections.
“There’s a huge strength of women working here,” says Thoudam Ongbi Shanti, president of one of the market’s vendors’ groups. “But we are not extraordinary people, we just want to make ends meet. We want to be responsible mothers.”
These days Ima Keithel is a microcosm of Manipur’s egalitarian society. The state has one of the highest female literacy rates in India and it is seen as a pioneer for gender equality across the country. And while the vast majority of Manipur’s population is the local Meitei ethnic group, true to its progressive values the market also houses Hindi women as well as those representing the state’s 33 indigenous groups.
Tungdar Makunga, a 50-year-old vendor from the Maring tribe who occupies a spot in a part of the less formal tin-roofed outer area, is among them.
“Even though I only started here recently and I’m not officially registered, the other women are very cooperative and friendly,” she says. “They make space for me if I need it.”
Others have used the freedom of the market to break out of traditional social norms.
The 80-year-old fabric seller Nongmai Them Khumsonbi says that when she was a newlywed her husband, at the time a low-paid government clerk, opposed her wish to become a trader at the market because he did not believe a woman should work.
“He didn’t want me to go out,” she grins. “But I won the argument. And I eventually started earning more than him.”
Not everything has been a smooth transaction for these women, however. In January 2016, a magnitude-6.7 earthquake sustained serious damage to the market buildings, and it took almost two years to rebuild. Closures that lasted more than a year during the pandemic also took a toll on the livelihoods of the traders.
But now business is back in full flow at this pioneering yet centuries-old market of mothers in remote northeastern India, every day a mesmeric mix of vibrant colors, sounds and smells – and the positive effects for the women are priceless.
“I love my work from the heart, I do it passionately,” says Oinam Ongbi Jayela, a 64-year-old tailor and widow. “But it’s not just work. I’m relaxed here. It makes me happy to be with these women. Being here, I feel that I will live for a long time.”