Ammo Angom writes about the vanishing markets sprouting at Ima Market’s margins.
Depending on who you talk to in Imphal, you’d hear them call its iconic women-run market Ima Keithel, Ima Market, Nupi Keithel, or Khwairamband Keithel. To me, however, it will always be Ima Keithel.
Back in the day, Ima Keithel used to be the primary keithel, or market, for all of Manipur. You’d find everything you needed to run your home here. This holds true even today; the keithel houses all traditional Manipuri produce and wares. However, today’s Manipuri kitchen has evolved over time, so while many locals still shop at Ima Keithel, we also visit less traditional markets for other staples that aren’t considered typically Manipuri.
For instance, you’d find a common kitchen tool like a yong khot, used to scrape off the skin of a twisted bean called yongchak here, but not something like a potato peeler, just as commonplace in most kitchens but not ‘traditional’ to Manipuri cooking. Similarly, you’d find the very Manipuri yongchak bean here, but not edible oil or dals, which aren’t native to Manipuri cuisine, although fairly integral to everyday meals today.
Growing up, it was the adults who’d visit the main market buildings, mainly for festival shopping. Everything to do with a religious ceremony or ‘puja’ can be found here, from produce for offerings and herbs, to utensils and clothes. As a child, I didn’t visit the main keithel very much. Even now, as a non-religious adult, I find little reason to shop there. Besides, the traffic and crowds make getting to the main market a messy affair.
Like most others I know, I go to the keithel once a week, but shop at the ‘extended’ markets—annexes of sorts—that have mushroomed around the main keithel structures. Ima Keithel reminds me of a lumpy knob of ginger, growing in different directions, spilling onto the pavements, and ever-shifting in shape and form.
Each annexe is referred to by a distinct name; the one I used to frequent for my weekly vegetable shopping was Nagamapal, right behind the main keithel. Post Covid-19, Nagamapal has shut down. Covid exacerbated the disappearance of several extended markets. Local police have been coming down hard on the annexes, and people who don’t buy in bulk are turning to newer, smaller markets for weekly shopping, me included. These newer markets aren’t small any longer: I can get everything I need there.
Ima Keithel consists of four buildings—officially numbered 1 through 3, but nobody identifies them by their number. Instead, they’re referred to as ‘the one in front’, ‘the one that sells phanek’, or similarly, based on the specialised produce they’re known for. The unnumbered fourth is a section less frequented, nestled in the easternmost part of the market.
Each of the four building sheds of Ima Keithel houses specific items, as agreed upon by the keithel’s committee. For example, within the shed selling textiles, cotton mustn’t be sold in the section dedicated to silk. The section selling traditional Manipuri sarongs (phanek) isn’t allowed to sell other types of shawls or sheets. The section selling knives cannot sell produce, though the sections are side by side.
Each morning, the women bring produce from their farms and villages to Ima Keithel. These small merchants, known as lallonbi, sell their produce to the vendors of the keithel, who sit at their stalls all day to sell to customers like me. The finest produce tends to be found inside the main Ima Market buildings.
The women who run Ima Keithel come from tough walks of life, and like women everywhere, don several hats at once—those of businesswomen, mothers, home-makers, breadwinners, among others. Running a stall at the keithel requires them to be fiercely competitive, smart, and practical. They refuse to take a raw deal lying down, but approach work, varied situations they are thrown into, and even struggles with a wry sense of humour. For some, the keithel is their primary source of income, and for many, a symbol of empowerment.
The pride these women take in their work is apparent in the care with which they dress. This elderly woman has a tiny stall with one pumpkin, and a few other wares. In the photo, she wears a special type of sarong—a phanek, not the everyday kind– naari, or earrings mostly reserved for formal occasions, and chandon, the traditional sandalwood paste, drawn on her forehead and nose. She symbolises the powerful ‘Ima’ in Manipuri society—highly respected, and unafraid to use her voice.
It’s nearly impossible for a new vendor to get a stall within the main market. Many of the stalls have been owned for decades, and are passed down through generations.
Ine Bimolini from Khurai, Imphal, works out of her mother’s erstwhile stall. The stall earned her just enough to run her home, but the recent pandemic has made things tough. Business is slow at the moment, and Bimolini awaits the wedding season—November to early June—for things to pick up again.
Most new vendors, unable to get stalls inside the main keithel, end up selling their wares and produce along the extended ‘pavement’ markets. Quality can be hit or miss at these stalls, but if you know what to look for, you can snag a good deal. The more exotic and rarer varieties of produce are only found at the edges of the market, and in small quantities. You would be hard pressed to find them in the main keithel, especially in bulk.
Eventually, though, the police shut down these ‘extended’ markets, and vendors are forced to find another safe location to set up stalls. This is the reality of the ‘sub-markets’ at Ima Keithel, sprouting and vanishing, riding waves of constant uncertainty and flux.
I always wonder why these ‘pavement’ market stalls keep getting displaced by the police when they serve such a substantial market. Without them, Ima Keithel would be just another market for photo-ops. Many of these displaced vendors have moved to other local markets that have sprung across the city. For many others, though, Ima Keithel is where their heart lies, and they continue to live a life of ‘sell and scoot’, losing parts of their produce to the local police from time to time.
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Ammo Angom is the founder of Living Manipur, living a dream journey to reconnect with his roots in Manipur, its people, and the land. He has been travelling and exploring various locations and communities in Manipur for some years now.
Divya Paramesh helped put together this extensive piece, and gave it direction. For her day job, she leads marketing for pharmaceutical brands. Her real passion is travelling, with a focus on social responsibility. She fell in love with Manipur on her first visit, and consults for Living Manipur in her spare time.
Diana Rose is deeply engaged in the education sector of Manipur, at the grassroots level. A traveller and photographer, she is a friend of Living Manipur.
Living Manipur offers customised trips to Manipur for adventurous and responsible travellers exploring new frontiers. Aiming to put Manipur on the map of premium travel destinations, they work with various villages in developing community-based tourism.