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‘Ima’ ( mother) reigns queen in this market

Zeena Singh

“blessed be she who is both furious and magnificent” Taylor Rhodes

…and furious she is if wronged, while magnificent at her meticulous business sense….

The ‘she’ I mention is the Mother at her place in the market where she reigns. Not just another mother, not just another market, but the one of its kind – The Ima Keithel (Mother’s Market) of Manipur, run solely by women, more so, the married ones.

Paradigm of a land profoundly steeped in culture and tradition it has been traced back 500 years when royal monarchy, held sway. So strong its roots, having grown from strength to strength, it stands, I believe, as the main, if not the largest part of the state’s commercial hub.

Permit me to take you along, through this vibrant energy-pulsating, animated heart of mercantile.

As you look for it, little are the chances of losing your way, even without direction signs of any kind. A low buzzing hum, as against a cackle of voices is the main give-away of its locale, now under a large lofty concrete structure which is in a great contrast of my earlier recollections of the Ima Keithel which were endless rows of slightly raised cemented platforms canopied by low arched corrugated tin sheets.

Today it lies sectioned as would any Super market, each product and merchandise in rows easily accessible of daily requirements such as fruit, vegetable, eggs and fish of sorts – fermented, sun baked, smoked and fresh.  You could often stumble upon quick nibbles in the form of vegetable batter fries, (or pakoras as we know it to be) and an occasional stray but special shrimp (khajing) pakora, the very palatable common snack popularly called ‘Bora’ in the local lingua franca, as also an occasional meal freshly churned out  for the bevy of women hawkers, as required.

A strong detectable – another give-away to its location is through the olfactory senses that draw in a mixed bag waft of undeniable scents mostly unrecognizable but to the familiar; appetizingly  flavorsome to many is of the most sought-after fermented bamboo shoot (shoiboom), that whets the gastric juices to a rumbling uproar or otherwise.

Another sector divided by a section of the road that splits the market into two segments would lead you to other goods of a wider variety from hand designed mosquito nets to colorful hand woven shawls of almost every one of the thirty odd existing tribes of the region separated and identified by their individual color and design, together with wraps of bright colorful shades and woven designs. A wider range you will find of the Meiteis (inhabitants of the capital valley, Imphal) sarongs or phanek as they are called, woven in brilliant shades matched with delicately woven stoles of cotton and silk in the coolest of pastel  colors and a wide choice of more handloom goods. Handicraft of Clay, Brass, other Metal and Wicker also feature in the wares sold here in this market.

Artificial jewelry of  typical Meitei  ethnic designs as also of commercially popular adopted ones  are lined in another special section where they may be let out on hire for special  occasions (weddings, the regular locality theatre performances and the like).

Appealing imported goods (primarily fabrics and shoes) from across the border of Myanmar are stocked in another section, from where often a shopper returns with a load of good bargains, depending.

A huddle of vegetable vendors is also usually found on the fringes of the market with their assortment of fruit and vegetables, this time around of those suitably grown in the cooler climate of the further surrounding hills. Here, one would be fortunate to discover many an exotically flavored herb, shoot and root, flowers, petal and leaf delectable to the seasoned taste buds.

Known to be Asia’s largest all-woman market, the ‘Ima Keithel’ has stood its test of time, resilient. Run united by norms unwritten but under an order of silent yet understood discipline, it stands as evidence of an empowerment that belongs to women – they who are impermeable to the innumerable storms of life, of broken homes and hearts, single moms, sole bread earners, miles and hurdles they cross every single day weathering every impediment to take their appointed place under the shelter and canopy that provides them a living.