Old age, a rug, and dignity: Manipur's women-only market in the new world

Ima Keithel at Imphal valley is a concept that belongs to the old world. Ima Keithel means “mother’s market” in Meiteilon, the language spoken by the Meitei people in Manipur. By tradition only women can set up stalls at the market. No man is allowed to sell stuff here.

Back in the time of the kings, before the British came to Manipur, senior women would sell clothes and vegetables at a place designated by the ruler of the day. The men then would be busy out on the paddy fields or in skirmishes with tribes in the jungles. So it fell on the women to make money out of the handloom and ethnic accessories that they used to weave at home. A collective market was the best place they could all go together to sell their goods.

The market, said to be 500 years old, is mostly staffed with Meitei women from Imphal valley and villages from neighbouring districts, though there’s some presence of tribal women from the hills.

The Meiteis are the Vaishnavite Hindus of Manipur’s multi-ethnic geography; they were converted to Vaishnavism by a travelling Bengali priest, who convinced the animist king of that time about the benefits of the imported faith, in the early 17th century.
There is still a heavy influence of the indigenous Meitei way of life, which is close to animism, in the Hinduism that they practice.
This is reflected especially in the food - fish and in some occasions, meat - and the vegetables that are symbolic links with nature (hence animism) while performing Hindu rituals.

Ima Keithel became a second home for the women. They made friends, shared family stories, discussed politics, ate together and made respectable money. The point was no matter how old a woman was, Ima Market had a place for everyone. No woman has to feel defeated by age.

For senior women it was a matter of immense pride to be able to walk to the market, spread a rug and sell something, anything.

Even today, you would see a grandmother sitting with a bunch of carrots. If you took a closer look you would find she had not come to make money; she came just for kicks. That is why Ima Keithel fills an important psychological need among the senior women in Manipur.

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