In my mind, Manipur was associated, for the longest time, with blockades and unrest. But a visit to Imphal, the capital of this north-eastern state, in November for the annual Sangai festival—named after the state animal, the brow-antlered deer, or sangai, found only in Manipur—proved to be an eye-opener.
Not only did I get a glimpse of the culture, since the festival brings together all the tribes, I realised Imphal is a deeply feminist city. It doesn’t mean that patriarchal views are absent, but the women are visible, with a history of leading mass movements of their own. Certainly, they seem to enjoy a greater degree of freedom than many of their counterparts in other states. As Sophia Arambam, a Manipur University researcher, noted in a 2020 paper, Women And Work In Manipur: “The women in Manipur are less likely to face the typical kinds of discrimination faced by their counterparts elsewhere, such as pressure to marry early, demands for dowry or other social ills like bride burning.”
My local guide, Julie Kagti, had a lot to do with the change in my views. A textile artist and a travel curator for her company, Curtain Call Adventures, she has been organising group tours for women, in addition to those for mixed groups, and has a good understanding of the North-East and its culture.
As I explored the city, I discovered that Imphal was once the seat of kings; both the city and the state are no strangers to conflict. They have seen it all, from the Burmese and Japanese invasions to war with the British in 1891. And women have played a huge role in moulding Manipur’s history. Take, for instance, the Nupi Lan, a mass resistance movement by women against the exploitation and artificial famine wrought by the British. This resulted in two major wars, in 1904 and 1939.
Women raised their voice yet again, this time against the sale and consumption of liquor, after a woman was assaulted at a liquor shop on 30 December 1975. She had gone there to try and stop her husband from drinking; the annoyed shopkeeper beat her up. This spurred a spate of protests. 1n 1991-92, sale of liquor was finally prohibited.
The Meira Paibi movement, whose origins go back to 1904, is well-documented. Following counter-insurgency operations in the state, women started patrolling the streets, protecting their localities from insurgent groups and the search operations of the Armed Forces. In 2004, a nude demonstration by 12 imas (mothers) in front of Kangla Fort, against the alleged rape and murder of a political activist, Thangjam Manorama, made headlines.
Our exploration of the city began at the very site of the ima demonstration—the Kangla Palace or Fort on the banks of the Imphal river. Once the palace of King Pakhangba of the Meitei dynasty, it was originally built as a citadel in 1611. Today it acts as the city’s lungs, with over 237 acres of green cover, overhanging fig and rubber trees, a lake, and the ruins of moats and brick walls.
History lesson over, we headed to the famous Nupi Keithel Market (popularly known as Ima Market, or Mothers’ Market). This is one of Asia’s biggest and oldest markets, run entirely by women. It sprawls across three large two-storeyed buildings with typically tapered Manipuri roofs, selling everything from fruits and vegetables to textiles.
I loved the lively vibe of the market, which was a microcosm of Manipuri society. Women—young and old—sat on elevated platforms, dressed in the local phanek ( sarongs) and shawls. Some were chatting, others doing accounts, knitting, or talking to customers. Our guide, Rajib, explained that the market had been around since the 16th century. The Meitei kings of the time had a system of military service called Lallup that left women to hold the fort—taking care of the family, doing the chores, toiling in the paddy fields and selling goods in the market.
The Ima Market is open only to married women, with stalls being passed on from mother to daughter. “Manipur has had a history of feisty women who have fought for their rights at every stage, from fighting the British forces to the military, and a women-run market is just another facet to that,” said Rajib. We walked through the market, picking up colourful phanek, reams of material and local spices, stopping for a chat or a photograph with the friendly shopkeepers.
Women continue to be visible in every sphere. Many of them still finance their enterprises through marups, a type of rotating savings scheme wherein they pool money and take turns to receive the collected money each month.
Stories and legends about the women of the city were a common thread through the trip. Not many people know that the famous game of polo had its origins in this state. I was lucky to see one match at the Imphal polo grounds, the oldest existing polo ground in the world. The game, in fact, has empowered many girls in the state who hail from humble backgrounds, shattering the stereotype that it is an elite game for rich men. Imphal has even hosted an international women’s polo tournament.
I met the man who revived women’s polo—L. Somi Roy, a film curator and author, whose home in Imphal is furnished with the artwork and books of his mother, a celebrated writer and artist, who hailed from the Manipur royal family.
On our last evening, we headed to the Sangai Festival grounds, watching rock music performances meld with traditional dance and martial arts. The ethereal Ras Leela dance can be misleading—for Manipur’s women are nothing if not spirited.
Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based journalist.