The earthquake that hit Manipur earlier this year damaged the iconic Ima market building but the spirit of women entrepreneurs in Imphal stands tall as they associate the commercial hub as a source of livelihood and independence.
Also known as the Ladies' or Mother's market, the market is said to have been established around 1500 AD and is run solely by women of different communities of the state. Seen as a 'mini Manipur', the market employs over 4,000 women. It is the lifeline of the state and serves as an important trading centre. Women either own a particular section of the area to set up a shop, or they have to rent the place in the complex. But the shops had to be shifted on the streets after cracks appeared in many pillars of the building.
Often, these women are the sole bread earners of their families, and waiting for the building to be repaired before getting back into business was not an option for them. "If we wait for the building to be repaired, before we could set up our shops again, how will we run our households? It will take time to rebuild the market, but that doesn't mean that our lives will come to a standstill!" says a shopkeeper at the market who sells fish. The heart of the city is now bustling with make-shift shops selling everything from fruits and vegetables and flowers to clothes and handicraft products, and customers continue to throng the market like before.
For many other women, the market is more than just a source of income as they have set up shops to feel independent by using the free time at their disposal. "My family is not dependent on me, all my children are doing fine jobs. I am running my shop here from the past seven years as I do not have much to do at home," says Prema, who is in her sixties. 58-year-old Bilasini who is married to a retired policeman, started working at the Ima market three decades back, not for the money that the job had to offer, but to develop an indentity of her own.
"It is very important for everyone to have an identity of their own. It should not matter whether you are a man or woman. Stepping out of the house and earning makes you independent and changes your vision as well," she says. The Manipuri society, which unlike most parts of the country is matriarchal in nature, upholds the rank of a woman in a household, and the Ima Keithel market is just one such example. The market opens as early as 7 in the morning and shuts as the sun sets. Situated near the Kangla Fort, the place is easily accessible by road.