In the Indian economy, salesgirls are a recent phenomenon. Every women has had some experience purchasing intimates, jewellery, and even underwear from a man behind the counter who refuses to meet her eyes. What a joy, even a relief, then to find a market where proprietors, vendors, and sales staff are all women!
In the northeastern state of Manipur, tucked into a corner of the Khwairamband market in the capital Imphal, is the Ima Keithel, or Mothers’ Market, where the show is entirely run by women. Here you can buy everything from food to textiles and toys. There are thousands of stalls, with upward of 4,000 vendors selling local goods like traditional clothing and dried fish, household items made from local bamboo and heaps of the famous eye-wateringly hot Morok chillies, among other things. And it’s been around for more than 500 years.
In times past, the market was a loose collection of scattered stalls near the Nambul river, but since 2010, it has been housed in a concrete structure within the Khwairamband Bazaar.
According to oral histories, the Ima Keithel has existed in one form or another since the 16th century; the first mention of it in written records is from 1533. Over the years, it has been shut down, uprooted, and even partially destroyed, but, like all grand dames, it has weathered the storms and stood steadfast.
And like all good matriarchs, it is not only a source of succor and empowerment; it is also the spot where news, gossip, and opinion is exchanged. In fact, at times, it has been the hub of rebellion and action.
Manipur’s women have played a role in the politics and economy of the state for a long time. The market itself has been under threat twice and the women launched agitations to defend their own economic independence and food security, as well as to resist a law that would make their men labor for free, in 1904 and 1939.
The earthquake in 2016 also left a section of the market reduced to rubble, but the women have restored it and everything is business as usual, now.
The stalls are run by women, and it’s a joy to see them decked out in their traditional sarongs, called phaneks, and stoles, called innaphis — both of which can be purchased in the Ima Keithel, if you want them for yourself.
There are rules though! Not everyone can set up a stall. First, the privilege runs in families and then, also, only married ladies can trade here. Second, there’s a union to manage the credit system and economy here. This enables the women to take micro loans to invest in materials, which they can repay once they’ve made a profit.
Each stall is rented out to the vendor, some of whom travel hours each way, for about 90 rupees a month. And while some only get enough place to sit cross-legged, all have an equal appetite for commerce and bargaining!
You can load up on everything you need right here: from kitchen ingredients to artisanal handicrafts.
The market starts up in the wee hours and though each stall is tiny and some women only have a few hands’ span of area to sit in and sell their wares, watching them set up is beautiful.
Do try the local dried fish and sample some of their fruit. Also buy some of the chillies for back home. Local toys and jewelry from bamboo and metal would make great souvenirs as well. Look out for blue lotus flowers (the Thai make desert from them) and black rice, as well.
Getting There: Bir Tikendrajit Rd, Thangal Bazar, Imphal, Manipur, India
Timings: Daily, 03:00 hours to 19:00 hours
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