A unique commercial complex, the Mother’s Market has been functioning for 500 years in Imphal, the capital city of the north-eastern Indian state, Manipur. Run entirely by women, it is a marketplace rooted in history and speaking of women empowerment.
In Imphal, the capital city of the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, functions a mega market. It’s an old marketplace wrapped in centuries-old traditions, historic stories, an array of goods and groceries… and womanhood.
The Mother’s Market, as it is commonly known, is perhaps the only one of its kind in Asia. With nearly 4000 stalls in its complex, it is run entirely by women, married women to be more precise.
Selling everything ranging from fruits and vegetables to apparel and jewellery, the market is colloquially called Ima Keithel wherein Ima literally means a mother. Stories and historic instances suggest that Ima Keithel has been part of Manipuri tradition since the 16th century.
As the local tales go, when Manipuri men were away in wars and fighting the Chinese and Burmese, the women of Manipur decided to be the breadwinners for their families and took over the commerce of their homes.
Established in a bygone era, the shops or arcades are handed down to the women of the family, generation by generation, and the inheriting ladies continue to follow the unwritten rules, thus, also making the marketplace traditionally stronger.
The local culture of Manipur is in fact rather evident here. Amongst the many goods that women sell here are some locally found edible insects which are a Manipuri delicacy, foods sourced from local plantations or forests, locally and traditionally crafted handloom and handicrafts. So, while there is the fragrance of some fresh produce on one side of this market, the other side which is literally demarcated by a lane, sells traditional Manipuri goods.
Interestingly, women here also sell wads of Indian currency of smaller denominations, but for a price greater than their face value. Although illegal, the trade has been going on for some years now and continues to pull the locales who need these notes for ceremonial purposes and cannot rely on banks who run of the cash’s high demand.
The very spirit of this market lies in the fact that it has been running seamlessly for half a millennium by only women who sell traditional delicacies and products here; and, this is what also makes the place a popular tourist spot and a podium of life and legacy.
The market continues to function till date despite all odds. In January 2016, Manipur was hit by a severe earthquake which shattered some recently built permanent structures in the complex. The quake had occurred at a time when the vendors hadn’t started their day yet. So, it did shake up their shops but their spirits stayed resilient to rebuild them. The Imas have also been fighting the odds posed by Indian security forces deployed in the state. After all, the Mother’s Market is more than just a business complex for these women. It is a sign of women empowerment.