The 500-YO History Behind Asia’s Largest All Women-Run Market in Imphal

Ima Keithal in Imphal.

Ima Keithal is a 500-year-old market in Imphal, Manipur, with historic and cultural significance. Today, it’s the largest all-women-run market in Asia with more than 5000 active traders.

A 500-year-old market set in the heart of Imphal in Manipur, Ima Keithal is one-of-a-kind for many reasons. Bustling with over 5,000 traders every day, it is believed to be the largest all-women market in Asia and possibly, the world.

A way of life for countless women, it is in fact a shopping haven offering almost everything, ranging from traditional handicrafts and textiles to local produce and fish.

Ima Keithal, which translates to ‘mother’s market’, stands as a symbol of Manipur’s history. Though the exact origin of the market remains unclear, scholars suggest that it dates back to the 16th century. There are also studies that suggest it originated as a result of the enforcement of the Lallup-Kaba (forced labour).

Lallup-Kaba is an ancient forced labour system in Manipur that sent away men of the Meitei community to cultivate faraway lands and fight wars. Meanwhile, the women stayed back in the villages, cultivating paddy, and selling the produce in improvised markets. This led to the formation of this historic market.

Ima Keithal also left a mark in the history of the British colonial era in India. When the British imposed aggressive commercial reforms in Manipur, the women traders at Ima Keithal opposed the move and revolted. This led to a conflict called Nupi Lan (Women’s War) that began in 1939. During that time, the women traders organised protests and rallies, demanding changes in the economic policies of the local ruler, who was then controlled by the British.

As a move against the rebels, the British even tried to sell Ima Keithals’ buildings to foreigners, but failed miserably as the women defended their market. Ever since, the flourishing market became a symbol of their cultural identity, representing the life and ethos of Manipur.

Watch the interesting story of Ima Keithal here:

Edited by Pranita Bhat

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