When the first rays of sunlight hit the capital of the remote state of Manipur, the “mothers market” is already involved in a cacophony of colors and spicy flavors. This unique location symbolizes the extraordinary power that local women enjoy. Resistant and vocal, the Imas have managed to protect their children and husbands through centuries of war and violence, in one of the most sensitive and unstable corners of India. Their example is in stark contrast to the rest of the country, where an endless series of heinous crimes against women emphasizes their precarious condition in society. Photos by Matilde Gattoni.
A few meters away, gentle old women sit quietly along rows of pottery and bamboo baskets, waiting patiently for the few clients of the day. The most enterprising vendors crack jokes to gain the attention of potential buyers, offering bites of local sweets and puffed rice. Others chitchat nonchalantly with their peers, or take advantage of a small break to enjoy a bowl of steamed rice and fried fish, or a well deserved nap. Before unpacking their merchandise, many pay a quick visit to the shrine of Ima Imoinu, the goddess of wealth and business and the market’s main protector, leaving propitiatory offers for the day. Located in the centre of this laid-back city at the border with Myanmar, the Ima Keithel (or “mother’s market” in local Meitei language) is the biggest market in the world run and managed exclusively by women. Around 10,000 of them work here every day, selling every kind of local product from, food to textiles, knives, toys and religious items.
The Ima Keithel encompasses three adjacent pagoda-style bazaars fitted out with barren, elevated concrete rows. Each vendor owns a small portion, or stall, regularly registered and passed down to generations - a retiring vendor will pick her successor among sisters, daughters or daughters-in-law. Apart from a few porters bringing goods into the market, men are not allowed to work here. “It has always been managed by women. We wouldn’t feel comfortable if men were around”, explains 70-year-old Lalita Soibam, a fish seller who has been working here for the past 35 years. “Here we can talk about sensitive family matters, the ups and downs of business, or about friends we have not seen in years. We wouldn't speak so openly at home”, echoes Victoria Oibam, 48, who manages a banana stall.
This unique location symbolizes the extraordinary power that local women enjoy. Resistant and vocal, the Imas have managed to protect their children and husbands through centuries of war and violence, in one of the most sensitive and unstable corners of India. Their example is in stark contrast to the rest of the country, where an endless series of heinous crimes against women emphasizes their precarious condition in society.
The rise of the Imas’ coincides with the creation of the market in the sixteenth century AD. Manipur was still a feudal, military society, and local men were often on corvée or at war against neighbouring Burma. Women were left alone and had to take care of everything else - households, children, fields and trade. Thanks to Imphal’s strategic position at the center of Manipur, what started as a makeshift, open-air market for bartering food surplus slowly turned into the economic heart of the whole region, helping local women acquiring more and more clout. “The market became a sort of people’s Parliament, where goods and news from all over the state were brought and shared, and where political, social and cultural dynamics got together”, explains Ch. Priyoranjan Singh, Professor at the Department of Economics at Manipur University.
The market and its mother played a fundamental role in shaping Manipur’s modern identity. In 1904, the Imas were the first to rebel against the British, opposing the coercion of their husbands for the reconstruction of a burnt bungalow. Women shut down the market for a whole week, bringing more than 5,000 people on the streets and forcing the colonial administration to backtrack. In 1939, angered at the British policy of exporting local rice to other parts of India, they confronted the army once again. Barehanded, many sustained serious injuries and imprisonment. The Anishuba Nupilan (or “second women’s war”) became one of Manipur’s landmark historical moments and is commemorated every 12th of December at a specially-built memorial.
The women’s political activism continues to this day. On a sunny winter morning, a group of politicians about to leave for Delhi for a meeting with the central government pass by the market to take the mothers’ blessings. The Ima Keithel comes to a standstill, as all the vendors close their stalls and sit along the main entrance to listen to their representatives. At the end of the speech, the politicians prostrate themselves to the ground, while the mothers rise, their fists pumped in the air, shouting their approval to the delegation. “We are taking the spirit from our mothers, because every movement starts from the Ima Keithel”, screams a politician amid the mothers’ cries of joy and defiance, before moving the airport.
Half an hour later calm has returned, and stalls are back to business. The vendors at the textile market, elegantly dressed in traditional colourful phanek, sit behind piles of shirts and shawls, declaiming the superior quality of their fabrics. Among them is Kalpana Chanu Akoijam, a spirited young woman of 34 who started working at the market ten years ago. (The Ima Keithel is traditionally reserved to married middle aged vendors, and) Akoijam was the first ever unmarried person admitted to work here. She is currently managing a wholesale textile stall belonging to an elder woman and she still has to find a husband. Although she admits she gets teased by the other women sometimes, she is not ready to give up her freedom for a man. “I am proud to be economically independent, and if I will ever get married I will not ask one penny from my husband”, she says firmly. “I wish to have my personal stall in the future, but no one is willing to sell.”
In the past decades the government tried several times to remove the Ima Keithel to make space for shops, supermarkets and banks. All efforts failed against the resolute opposition of the mothers, who organised weeks-long massive strikes, bringing the economy of the whole state to a standstill. When the government proposed a restructuring of the market buildings in 2005, the mothers slept within its premises for two and a half years to protect it from takeovers. “We stood here day and night, selling goods, cooking and sleeping together”, recounts Radhesana Rajkumari, 70, a textile seller and President of one of the many women organisations running the market. “During that time my son and my brother died, but I didn’t go to the funerals. The most important thing was to save the market”.
Thanks to their earnings, many vendors have been able to sustain their families and provide for their children. Sanghai Okram, a 70-year-old illiterate woman with a frail voice selling bed and bath linen, managed to send all her children to school (she is still helping one, who is currently unemployed) and cover her husband health bills. Okram is also supporting her grandson’s engineering studies in Delhi. “I just hope he will be able to land a good job. Only then I will start thinking about retirement”, she affirms in laughter.
“Many doctors and engineers owe their careers to these women”, explains Nomita Khongbamtabam, one of Imphal’s most renowned journalists. Despite their advanced age and humble backgrounds, all of them exude a magnetic aura, that unique mix of resolution, confidence and fighting spirit typical of people forged in a tough environment. Many have already earned enough to enjoy a comfortable retirement, yet the attachment they feel towards the market is hard to let go. Their daily routine of early wake-ups, household duties and work makes them feel alive and part of the society. “Before the advent of newspaper and mass communication, the Ima Keithel was the main information centre”, continues Khongbamtabam. “It still is. Issues don’t become important unless they are reported here”.
Following independence and its inclusion in the Indian Union, Manipur was marred by a decade-long-war between the Indian Armed Forces and several insurgency groups fighting for independence. Who civilians fell victims of violence, it fell upon the mothers to call the government into account.
In 2004 a young female activist was arrested by an Indian paramilitary force and later found dead, brutally raped, shot and mutilated. In the most daring protest Manipur had ever seen, twelve Imas showed up in front of the barracks, completely naked, chanting slogans such as “Indian Army, rape us too…” Embarrassed and stunned by the courage of the women, Indian authorities removed the paramilitaries from the city centre, and lifted the state of emergency which had been enforced in Imphal since 1958.
With time, relationships between the Imas and the local police have significantly improved. "I am constantly in touch with them”, explains K. Chandrashekhar Singh, the officer in charge of the city police station. "They have often given us information about events in the market that allowed us to prevent crimes or solve cases”. Their voluntary associations, named meira paibi (or “women torch-bearers”), patrol the streets at night to stem drugs and alcohol consumption, and the domestic abuses they fuel. They also play a fundamental role in keeping communities together, through advocacy and awareness campaigns.
After decades of instability, Manipur is finally starting to breathe. Military activities have declined, allowing a trickle of tourists into this enchanting, untouchedregion. The Ima Keithel is one of Manipur’s main attractions, and the local government is starting to appreciate the fundamental role it can play in promoting Manipur to the outside world. “It’s a women market, and I want it to remain as it is. Its uniqueness should be preserved”, declares Dr. Najma Heptulla, Governor of Manipur.
Yet economic necessities and the gradual opening of the region are bringing change also to the market.“ The Ima Keithel was traditionally reserved to elderly, post-menopause women. They didn’t have much to do at home, so it was a kind of time-passing activity”, explains Takhellambam Deepamanjuri Devi, assistant professor at the Department of Sociology of Manipur University. “It was not acceptable for young women to work in the market, but now you’ll find many selling with toddlers on their back. It shows how burdened they are with the responsibility of earning for the family”.
Most of the youngest sellers belong to the thousands of informal, seasonal vendors squatting on the surrounding streets. They come from the hills around Imphal as early as 3am, with a few homegrown vegetables, and return home as soon as they sell them. They constitute the vast majority of the vendors, yet their presence is a constant source of tension with the Imas, who contrary to them pay taxes and complain of unfair competition. The police tries to maintain an uneasy truce by allowing informal vendors to sell only for a few hours a day, but many overstay out of necessity, as high unemployment and scarce economic opportunities don’t offer viable alternatives. “The market shows the vibrancy of our agricultural products and the tragedy of unemployment and poverty at the same time”, comments Prof. Singh bitterly.
The government is thinking about moving the informal sellers to another market, as it recently did with a series of provincial markets meant to decongest the Ima Keithel. “It didn’t work”, continues Professor Singh. “Vendors know that their clients are used to the variety, higher quality and cheaper prices of this market, so they prefer to commute long distances and sell here”. As the sun sets on the Imphal valley, the Imas start packing their goods in metal cases before returning home. Inyet another demonstration against the central government, thousands of candles are being lighted and placed all around the bazaars’ entrances. They will burn throughout the night, enveloping the city in the reassuring, protective embrace of its mothers.