It is believed to be the largest all-women’s market in Asia, and accompanied by the couple Rtn D Ravishankar, President of RC Bangalore Orchards, and his wife Paola, who are, comparatively speaking, stalwarts of Manipur, having built a school and much more in Manipur, I step into what is undoubtedly one of the most exciting places I have ever visited.
The Ima Keithel (which translates to ‘mother’s market’) is believed to be 500 years old and is home to some 4,000 to 5,000 women traders, who offer you wares ranging from textiles, to local jewellery, to the freshest vegetables and fruits, freshly cooked food, and even brand-new currency notes, exchanged for old ones for a commission.
For ₹10, we get a fistful of piping hot, delicious bhajjis, served lovingly, and with a smile.
As you enter its portals, you can’t but be blown away by the buzz, the vibrance, the aroma of freshly cooked food, and of course the cheerful, bright colours in which the women are dressed, most of them wearing colourful traditional sarongs and shawls to bear the winter chill. They are all doing brisk business; and the most remarkable thing to note is the smile on the faces of most of the women who are striking deals with their customers or cooking vegetables and fish, fresh pakodas, local roots, etc.
Located in the heart of Imphal, this colourful, sprawling market is an important hub and meeting ground for the locals. Of the many stories associated with this market, manned (for lack of the word ‘womanned’!) only by women, one says that this market’s female-only workforce resulted from the enforcement of the Lallup-Kaba, an ancient forced labour system in Manipur that sent the men from the Meitei community to cultivate faraway lands and fight wars. With the men away most of the time, it was left to the women to stay back in the villages, grow paddy and other crops, take care of the house and the children and also sell their farm produce in improvised markets.
If you are a fish lover, this is your market. You can choose from a variety of fish, living and dried, and can get it cooked right there on the spot.
And hence were born markets where women played a dominant role, and the evolution of the iconic Ima Keithel in the city of Imphal happened. Even today, most of the women, if not all, manning the various booths here are the Meitei women, who can be distinguished from their very fair and flawless complexion and the tilak worn by many of these women, not above, but right on the bridge of the nose.
With barely an hour available to browse this huge market — my strong advice is to set aside a day and plan a whole meal here — we had to walk through the winding rows and rows of shops a little hurriedly. Handicrafts made of bamboo, cane and straw, ranging from baskets to boxes, and Manipuri dolls dressed up in colourful clothes compel and captivate you, as also the traditional jewellery made of metal and colourful beads. And then of course there are a dozen or more women sitting with bundles of new notes — fresh from the mint — and trading them for old notes, for a ten per cent commission.
We run through the vegetables stalls, halting to admire a heap of huge lemons here, traditional roots, spices and herbs there, and particularly the huge earthenware pots used to ferment and dry the fish.
If you are a fish lover, this is your market. You can choose from a variety of fish, living, dried or fermented, and can get it cooked right there on the spot. Entire rows of shops in this market are reserved for customers to sit on the benches where freshly prepared food is served to you on the tables… and with a smile. Ravishankar tempts Paola and I to try freshly fried bhajjis/pakodas. For a mere ₹10, the woman puts a large fistful of this piping hot delicacy on a piece of paper on your palm. It is delicious and we promptly get a refill!
Since I have only hand baggage, I am advised against buying the very pungent Naga chillies. But next time, it is certainly going into my bag!
Paola has told me a lot about the red Naga chillies, but since I have only hand baggage, I am advised against buying it. But the next time around, this is definitely going into my baggage. In the couple of meals I had in Manipur, I did try it out, and trust me, it can open up your taste buds, and how!
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat