Ima Keithel, or the ‘Mother’s Market’ is easily Imphal’s most interesting spot. Though its exact origins aren’t entirely documented, this huge market of some 5,000 women, probably the only one of its kind in the world, is widely believed to have begun in the 16th century, when ‘Lallup Kaba,’ a system of forced military labour sent Manipur’s Meitei men to distant lands for war. This left the wives and mothers of the land to do the work men normally did at the time, right from agricultural labour to transporting and selling produce, and even the shopping.
While it began out of necessity at the time, Ima Keithel has evolved into so much more than just a market since then, which is why it has remained relevant for the last five centuries and continues to reinvent itself. Like most parts of the world, there were numerous wars in Manipur even after Lallup Kaba ended; so while men have been something of a variable presence in the local economy, the self-employed and self-sufficient women of Ima Keithel—unlike the men who worked for masters of various kinds—maintained their local presence and autonomy from every ruling class that came Manipur’s way, evolving into an epicentre of women’s empowerment and sociopolitical resistance to colonial bullying and attacks on Manipur’s indigenous autonomy.
Importantly, this is also a place where the mothers, sisters and wives of Imphal meet, discuss community, politics and social justice, and organise themselves into proactive people’s movements and protests. Seen from a feminist lens, the degree of economic self-reliance that Ima Keithel has given these women almost makes men seem redundant. Interestingly though, only married women are allowed to hold stalls here.
The most interesting time of day to visit is just before dawn, when, come rain or shine, the first battery of women from faraway villages, dressed in traditional sarongs and shawls, arrive at the market with farm-fresh produce, dry and fresh fish, aromatic herbs and lake and forest vegetables. Many of these ingredients form the core of the Meitei kitchen. An intoxicating cocktail of intense colours and aromas can suddenly take hold of your senses here, as you negotiate between open areas, narrow gullies and indoor markets surrounded by pineapples, fermented bamboo shoot, various lotus plant parts, tubers, king chillies, traditionally fermented fish (ngari), wild mushrooms and intensely colourful decorative flowers sold against a cacophony of bargaining, giggling and friendly chatter…. This is thousands of women in one place, after all! To attract attention, many sellers here pay unusual levels of attention to the geometry, composition and colour combinations of their displays, even going to the extent of decorating dry fish with bright red chillies or flowers.
Most of what arrives at dawn sells off by 9am, after which another batch of sellers takes over and a new chapter begins. And so it continues... There’s also an entire indoor section devoted mostly to handloom, and interestingly, a whole sub-section there just reserved for hand-embroidered mosquito nets!
Ima market’s food stalls are also run by women. Each proprietor may eventually pass on her stall to her daughter or daughter-in-law according to her preference.
The market continues to expand way beyond its original premises, and now spills out onto footpaths and the busy main road, sending out a necklace of LED lamp-lit sellers sitting on blue tarp and unleashing tangy bamboo shoot fragrance into the busy streets, slowing road traffic down till late in the night; at this point many women just want to sell off the day’s stock and go home; it suddenly becomes more of a buyer’s market and the whole atmosphere again changes. Ima market is an addictive kind of place that you can visit daily or at different times of the same day and still learn or experience something new.
SHRI SHRI GOVINDAJI TEMPLE
Not to be missed on an Imphal visit is the impressive medieval Shri Shri Govindaji temple of the Vaishnavite Meiteis. One of the highlights of the morning rituals is bhojan prasad—a marvellous vegetarian Meitei spread served after 11am. Book in advance, preferably a day before. The daily evening aarti ritual is unlike anything in the Krishna temples in the rest of India; here it is an elaborate opera performance with singing, conches blowing, percussions and dance movement. Out of the five variations of the world-famous Raas leela dances of Manipur, three are performed at the Shri Shri Govindaji temple.
WW2 SITES AND MEMORIALS
The Battles of Imphal and Kohima were the turning point of WW2. What Normandy was in the West, Manipur was on the Eastern Front. Imphal itself was bombed for the first time on May 10 and 16, 1942, sending most of the city fleeing. While the Japanese, who had taken Burma, marched towards Imphal, along with Subhash Chandra Bose, the British army fighting them was also composed of many Indians. While the Japanese faced their most severe defeat in the war, Manipur suffered severe casualties as well. Today, Manipur has a number of WW2 battle sites, cemeteries and memorials, which attract visitors from overseas, highlighting the region’s war history. These include war sites in Ukhrul district, the Indian Army Memorial and Imphal War Cemetery in Imphal, ‘Red Hill,’ the site of a bloody battle with the Japanese, and the INA museum at Moirang, where the Indian tricolour was first unfurled by the INA even before India’s independence.
For more information: Manipur Tourism