The Free Women of the East

Women of the East
Dear readers… in this blog, Shashi Thakur has showcased the struggles and triumphs of Manipuri Women of the East and how they stood against the British in protecting their market.
Women of the East
(Women of the East selling textiles)

Other than lush green beautiful landscapes and pristine flora and fauna, Northeast India is well-known for its enterprising and empowered women. Their strong presence can be found everywhere in Imphal, the capital city of Manipur. Women’s visibility is much more at the world-famous Ima Keithel (Mother’s Market), located in the heart of the city.

Historic Market of Women of the East

The word ‘Ima’ means mother. The historic market complex consists of three large buildings (47,000, 30,000, and 20,000) sq. ft, located on an area of 3.5 km. The market is split into two columns on either side of the road and is run primarily by the ladies of Imphal, for 500 years, according to the local people. Here men are disallowed to sell anything, except for buying items.

(Ima Keithel in the heart of Imphal)

The market was created after a forced labor system Lallup-Kaba was imposed on the Meitei community in the Manipur Kingdom, where the men were compelled to do farm work in distant regions or to go to wars. As a result, women were left to fend for themselves, by cultivating their fields or weaving textiles, to look after their household and children.

The women sold their farm produce or textiles in the voluntary markets. Gradually, these voluntary or unplanned markets expanded, and the growing local commercial needs led to the birth of the organized Ima Keithel.

During the colonial period, the British administration tried to put aggressive saleable reforms in Manipur. For example, huge quantities of locally cultivated rice were sent out to many British troops posted near Manipur without analyzing the needs of the locals.

(Nupi Lan memorial, Imphal. Every year on the 12th Dec there is Nupi Lan observation by the state government.)

Such extents were furiously disapproved by the Women of the East – Manipur, in a dispute called Nupi Lan (Women’s War) that started in 1939.

During this movement, women vendors of Ima Keithel regulated meetings, agitations, and rallies to demand changes in the economic schemes of the local ruler, who fully obeyed the British. To crush Nupi Lan, the Britishers attempted to sell the Ima Keithel buildings to external buyers and foreigners, but the women fiercely protected their market, as it was a symbol of their cultural identity.

Nupi Lan dimmed out only when the Second World War broke out and Manipur became a war zone for both the Allied forces and the Japanese. After independence, this all-women’s market evolved into a hub for the exchange of socio-political beliefs. Since then, Ima Keithel’s women have persisted to play a big role in Imphal’s local economy.

Every morning, beautifully dressed in traditional phaneks (sarongs) and innaphis (shawls) these cheerful ladies settle down for a day’s business, at the Khwairamband Bazaar (another name for Ima Keithel. Their boisterous chatter and laughter over the daily arguing between the buyers and sellers fill up the air. 

The 5000 exclusively women traders display a vibrant array of textiles, spices, toys, daily essentials, fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables, and many more. A remarkable symbol of Manipur’s history, Ima Keithel is assumed to be Asia’s and perhaps the world’s largest all-women market. Hence, it’s also a popular tourist attraction.

(Women of the East selling more chilies)
(Women of the East selling more chilies)

The market has a turnover of nearly 50 crore rupees and is governed by a union that also provides loans to women. The union upholds the tradition of licensing only married, widowed, or divorced women to arrange stalls.

Realizing the unique role the market plays in their lives and profession, Manipuris affectionately relates to Ima Keithel as the ‘Queen of Markets’. 

Depicting the life of Manipur, where these women of the East have long been at the lead of commerce and socio-political revolts, this MARKET OF MATRIARCHS remains to be a glorious example of financial empowerment and gender equality.

“Each time a woman stands up for herself she stands up for all the women.” – Maya Angelou            

-Shashi Thakur

Ima Market – Women of the East

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