The earthquake has damaged a nerve centre of life in Manipur: the Ima Keithel or Mother's Market
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Iconic buildings in Imphal were battered by Monday’s earthquake, which hit the North East with a magnitude of 6.7 on the Richter scale and jolted people out of their beds at 4.35 am. In addition to the newly constructed Manipur Assembly, the Ima Keithel or the Mother’s Market was also damaged. Photographs of the market show bent pillars, crumbling walls, missing hunks of plaster and cement. The earthquake has destroyed, at least for now, one of the nerve centres of life in Manipur.

Ima Keithel is one of the largest women’s markets in Asia. At any given day, there are about 5,000-6,000 women selling their wares at the market, says W. Nabakumar, who teaches anthropology at Manipur University. Some of them own permanent stalls, others come from other parts of the state, sell their goods and go back. Both, Nabakumar adds, are crucial to the market’s economy. A range of goods are bought and sold at Ima Keithel, from dried fish, spices and vegetables to toys and locally produced garments.

Part of history

But Ima Keithel is more than an economic hub. “It is part of Manipur’s history,” said Nabakumar. “Since time immemorial, women have played an important role in Manipur’s economy.” TC Hodson, assistant political agent to Manipur and superintendent of the state in the early 20th century, had this to say in his book, The Meitheis: “The women hold a high and free position in Manipur, all the internal trade and exchange of the produce of the country being managed by them. The habit of the country is to have bazars at convenient spots by the roadside, where a handful of women congregate at the early hour.”

The very buildings that have housed the Ima Keithel mark the many phases of the state’s history. The women’s market goes back centuries, and the earliest structures would have been made of bamboo, with thatched roofs. After the British established colonial rule in Manipur in 1891, they tried to take control of the local economy. “They built a market with a corrugated iron roof,” Nabakumar said. “The building constructed by the British existed until the 1970s. Then five or six years ago, the new structure came up, built by Simplex Projects.”

And resistance

For more than a century, Ima Keithel has been a centre of resistance. In 1904 and 1939, the vendors at the women’s market became part of the Nupi Lan (women’s war) launched against the economic policies of the British.

Post Independence, as Manipur became home to various secessionist movements and state violence grew routine, the marketplace became a centre for the exchange of socio-political ideas. “It was an important place of communication at a time when there was no print media,” said Nabakumar. “People would come to the market from different parts of state. Then they would go back and the information would be relayed.”

The building which was damaged on Monday is not far from Kangla Fort, where stall owners participated in the protests of 2004. Women in the nude had demonstrated against the death of Thangjam Manorama, who had been raped and murdered by paramilitary forces. Members of the Ima Keithel women’s associations have regularly supported other students movements and protests against human rights violations in Manipur.

In 2003, when the state government decided to build a supermarket complex on the site and commissioned Simplex to do it, reportedly without consulting the vendors, women’s associations sat on dharna. Many feared that they would lose their stalls in the new building.

But if the Ima Keithel could organise resistance, it could also bring different groups together. Perhaps the most important feature of the marketplace, in a state riven by ethnic conflicts, was its diversity. “It was a market for Meiteis, Muslims as well as tribal people from the hill areas,” said Nabakumar. “It was a multi-ethnic marketplace.” The smells, food and languages that filled the market came from all over Manipur.

With the destruction of the marketplace, a crucial meeting point has been lost. Yet history would indicate that the Ima Keithel cannot be contained in a building.