The quintessential Mother’s Market of Manipur is one of the world’s unique hotspots that is both blistering and boisterous at the same time. As one enters this exceptional Mother’s Market there is a whiff of remarkable amalgamation of aromas that is a concoction of culturally created fragrances of Manipuri native cuisines. It’s like an elaborate food plaza with simple shops, where women with homely exuberance squat cross-legged in their own niche, without any walls or visible demarcations. It’s actually a massive assemblage of independent women merely sitting on elevated platforms on allotted plot plans of 10ftx10ft surrounded with their respective piles of products. The lingering tangy flavours are indeed intoxicating and at times intimidatingly pungent even though most of it is uncooked, as it is raw and fresh from the village meadows. Even the cacophony of shoppers and shopkeepers is understandingly unique because they speak dialects that are different to each other as they belong to dissimilar tribes and regions of Manipur.
It was 4:30 in the evening and a purple dusk had enveloped the massive market, as I went about exploring the Mother’s Market in the sleepy town of Imphal, capital of Manipur, in the far eastern corner of India. Despite impending nightfall, nearly 4000 women were busy optimising their day-end sales strategy of perishable and non-perishable products, so they could retire for the night with a tidy profit. The sprawling big bazaar is popularly known as “Ima Keithel” or “Ima Market” or simply Mother’s Market and displays a rich array of bountiful knickknacks for daily use. A spectacular photo-op for shutterbugs, this vast all-women’s market is run by some 3000 ima (Mother’s). Divided by a road, one side sells vegetables, fruit, fish and groceries, while the other deals in household items, fabrics and pottery. This staggering group of mostly old, middle-aged and a handful of young Manipuri women, congregate every day for selling a rich range of delightful rustic merchandise. One can easily find items ranging from fresh fruits, vegetables, assorted meat, live fish alongside dried fish, local herbs, shoots and roots, raw edible bamboo, forest produce, bundles of banana leaves and even coconuts. Women also sell jewellery items, rice products, local handicrafts, dolls, toys, knives, innumerable cane and bamboo products.
The modern Mother’s Market has long been a part of Manipuri tradition, and history vaguely records that it dates back to the 16th century and has always been one of the town’s unique tourist experiences. The earliest indication can be traced to 1533 and many mini-markets were established in the formative years in different places for small business transactions. TThe Gazetteer of Manipur-1786, indicates that all the selling was always conducted by women in the open air and later in temporary hutments alongside the Nambul River. Until recently, the market was conducted impromptu with makeshift carts and carriage widgets in the mornings, from 5am to 10am, as sunup is early in the north-east of India. Over the years the women’s market has become a part of the livelihood and living system for the empowered women and is now conducted all day.
Recently, in the first week of January this year, an earthquake splintered a few pillars in the permanent structure that was built specially for these wonderful women. The outwardly attractive three floor open air shoppers’ paradise was specially designed in accordance to the local architecture and has become a tourist spot. The temple like shopping complex made for these beleaguered Mother’s was inaugurated in November 2010 by Ms.Sonia Gandhi, the then president of the UPA government. Finally the women were safe from the vagaries of nature and the selling and buying traditions continue with aplomb today.
Next day, when I again went to look for more photo opportunities, I found the women wrapped in colourful stoles or dupattas called innaphis and sarong-like traditional phaneks, their foreheads marked with elegant streaks of sandalpaste, the Mother’s getting ready for another day of rural business. Their animated gossip, coupled with laughter, rang out over the hubbub of haggling with regular and random customers. There is hardly anyone from Manipur who does not require a visit to the magical Mother’s Market. Because of the enjoyable experiences for outsiders and locals, the Mother’s Market is probably the world’s only all-women marketplace and one of Imphal’s main tourist attractions. This is because the most important feature of the market, other than the 4000 odd shopkeepers, is women, representing the greater mobility and economic participation of Manipuri women. It is 100% lady-lure where women’s lib is prevalent and equality is not only preached but also practised wholeheartedly with unwritten laws passed from generation to generation. Seventy-year-old Bilasini Devi, who has been continuously selling fruits for over 45 years here says “I love coming here as it is like a second family to me”.
The Mother’s Market actually consists of two main sections – one where the vegetables, fruits and necessary items are sold and on the other which is demarcated by a lane, where myriad handloom products of Manipur are sold. The Market also displays local culture, tradition and biodiversity products like large water beetles and 30 different kinds of edible insects, considered a delicacy. Foodstuffs sold here are mostly locally sourced from small plantations or from nearby jungles as the state is endowed with extensive forest cover. While cotton clothes, silks, woollens, handicrafts and traditional costumes come from within Manipur, some of it also comes from the neighbouring states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and even Myanmar, through the porous border. The USP (unique selling proposition) of this Mother’s Market is the simplicity and it is executed in the same manner as in olden days, without any fanfare, akin to a flea market. After seeing these pastoral women, it comes as no surprise that five times World Champion and Olympic medallist Mary Kom is one of them, with grit and wit to perform despite all the odds.
A local NGO describes it thus, “The Market is not just a hub of commerce, but also of information exchange”. During lean periods in the day women discuss sombre and mundane matters and this incessant gossip and amicably sharing tidbits keeps both educated and uneducated women aware and empowered. Mother’s Market has its own set of unwritten rules that are followed obediently by the women. Despite waves of invaders and conquerors who besieged the region over the years, the women continue to control the local economy on their own terms. There is trust and faith in the collective strength of the women vendors demonstrated over and over again. “Each segment of the market has fixed allocation for particular trading items, likewise a woman who has been trading in cloth for years cannot change her trade to other items, though there are no written rules, there will be opposition and she won’t be allowed a free run,” says a pretty, elderly lady named Pabitora. An additional 2000 women who have not been able to acquire space inside the main market, nonchalantly sit outside on the skirting roads in the evenings to sell fresh vegetables and homemade snacks.
Strangely, the business of selling crisp wads of new notes for a profit by a few women has been going on in recent years. “We know it is an illegal trade and we could be arrested by the police, if our names come out in the papers.” The casual money vendors run their trade without any hindrance from government or bank authorities. The authorities have chosen to look the other way. “We know it is illegal. But society needs unsoiled notes for marriages, birthday and other religious programmes. The new notes in the banks cannot meet the high demand, so these vendors are catering to the needs of the people. Frankly speaking, we do not know what to do,” a government official said.
By nightfall the din slowly turns to a hush, women pack up, and bundle their booty into waiting carts while some linger to cook a meal. Ms. Suporna, a well-read woman with a wry smile said, “When I don’t sell much, I do this….” and lights up a folded newspaper as a wick torch and swishes the flame around her vegetables to encourage buyers. Once she finishes this little ceremony, she emphatically says, “While the Dabbawalas of Bombay are well-known for their collective effort which is only 125 years old, our “Market of Matriarchs” in Manipur has not got its due recognition from mainland India, even though we have been collectively conducting this non-stop market for more than 400 years.”
Of the women
- The mother’s market or ‘Ima Keithel’ in Imphal, the capital of the India’s north-eastern state of Manipur, is perhaps the only one of its kind in Asia, maybe even the world.
- The thousands of stalls are all run by women, selling everything from fruits and vegetables to colourful garments and handmade jewellery.
- The market has long been a part of Manipuri tradition with evidence suggesting that it dates back to the 16th Century.
- Historians say as Manipuri men were mostly fighting in wars with the Chinese and Burmese, Manipuri women shouldered the responsibility of supporting their families.
- Neither the long-running insurgency, nor the huge presence of India’s security forces, have stopped the women from doing business at the market, and over the years, the vendors have also held protests on various social issues.
- Laishram Ongbi Mema Devi has been selling handicraft at Imphal’s Women’s Market for more than three decades.