In a far-flung corner of north-east India, just under 65km from the Myanmar border, is an extraordinary market. Located in the city of Imphal, Ima Keithel – or Mother’s Market – is run exclusively by at least 4,000 women. No men own businesses here, and it has always been this way. It is the largest female only-run market in Asia, and perhaps the world.

Surrounded by lush green hills, the valleys of Manipur once made up the independent Kangleipak Kingdom, which survived from 33AD until the 19th Century when it became a princely state of British India. Manipuri men were trained as fearsome warriors from a young age and deployed to the kingdom’s perimeters for defence, leaving the women to run all other aspects of daily life.

This formed the basis for Manipur’s traditionally egalitarian society, which according to the imas, still very much exists.

For travellers, Ima Keithel is atmospheric, friendly and engaging – a true human wonder of the world. Those interested in visiting to meet the imas in person will be warmly welcomed. One lady grasped my hand, stared into my eyes and said in the local Meitei language a heartfelt sentence that translated as: “I am so happy that you have come all this way. Thank you, thank you.

It’s easy to leave with a positive impression, especially after having engaged with the imas on a deeper level and listening to the many stories they have (and genuinely want) to tell.

The strength of the imas is immediately noticeable in their mannerisms and body language; sitting cross-legged on raised platforms, they lean forward with elbows resting on thighs supporting strong shoulders. They seek out and maintain eye contact with passers-by and are not shy of a joke. Few men are to be seen.

The market comprises three large two-storey buildings with traditional Manipuri-style tapered roofs, and foodstuffs and fabrics are the main wares. A relatively common sight is groups playing the board game Ludo, the imas’ favourite game to unwind with during the market’s quieter hours.

A progressive market

Sitting among neatly stacked piles of handmade scarves and sarongs, Thabatombi Chantham (pictured) recalls the market’s earliest incarnation in the 16th Century. Before currency was introduced to Manipur, the market was based on a barter system of trade. Sacks of rice might be swapped for fresh or fermented fish, cooking utensils and fabrics for an extravagant Manipuri wedding.

In 2003, the state government announced plans to construct a modern shopping centre on the current site of Ima Keithel. This led to one of the market’s first notable instances of activism of the new century, with the imas holding sit-in protests overnight that ultimately persuaded the government to abolish its plans.

Just outside the market

Outside the three market buildings sit hundreds of other women. They hawk fruits, vegetables, herbs and the ubiquitous fermented small fish that are a staple of Manipuri cuisine. Mixed with king chillies and mashed vegetables to make the fiery chutney eromba, the fish are the source of a pungent odour that lingers in the narrow alleys nearby.

These women outside the market do not possess a licence for a space to sell inside Ima Keithel, and therefore must exercise caution and keep one eye peeled for the law. “The police rarely bother to make arrests or issue fines,” Chantham said. “Instead, they’ll just toss the fresh produce into the street.”

I spot a pile of fresh-looking apples in the gutter, evidence perhaps of a recent altercation.

Commanding respect

Chantham agrees to set up a meeting with the group of imas who head the main organisation that leads and represents the market’s 4,000 women, Khwairamband Nuri Keithel, of which she herself is an executive member.

Upstairs in one of the buildings, these imas gather in their office. Outside the door lies a young man taking a nap on a piece of cardboard, seeking respite from the day’s baking heat. One of the women, Mangolnganbi Tongbram (third from left), stands over him and orders him to wake up and vacate the area. He leaps up, apologises profusely with head bowed and scarpers. It is unmistakably a display of deference to a respected figure.

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