TODAY -

Pre-colonial trade of Manipur
- Part 1 -

Budha Kamei *

Women Market (Ima Keithel) :: RKCS Art Gallery
Women Market (Ima Keithel) :: RKCS Art Gallery
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery



The present article is an attempt to look into the trade and commerce of Manipur during the pre-colonial period. Manipur is one of the (trade and human migration) routes between South Asia and South East Asia and Central Asia. Various ethnic groups belonging to southern Mongoloid group, the Tibeto-Burmans, the Indo-Aryans and a sizable section of Tai came to this land in search of land for habitat and livelihood, for power and glory from pre-historic times down to the present day.

Many scholars have pointed out that Manipur, however, small it may be, had been for centuries the meeting place of several peoples. The present ethnic groups of Manipur, the Meiteis, the Nagas, the Kuki-Chins and other Indian communities are the descendants of those migrating peoples. These ethnic groups did contribute to the growth of the civilization in this state. And these migrating people brought with them technology ranging from rough stone tools to more refined Neolithic and potters. The metal civilization of Manipur was developed mostly through trade. The metal tools mostly bronze, copper and tin came from Thailand and upper Burma cultural zone during the historical period.

The pre-colonial economy of Manipur was characterized by barter economy. Introduction of bell-metal coin gradually took the place of the barter system. (Kabui 1991: 263) However, this currency or coin did not help much either in the internal or external trade of Manipur. Barter system continued to be as an important means of business transaction till the introduction of British currency in Manipur. There was no regular market; the common practice was to get the goods exchanged at the houses of producers and consumers and sometimes, at a place depending on the mutual conveniences of these people. Both men and women actively took part in the trade activities. It is an interesting feature of economy of Manipur in the pre-colonial time.

Pakhangba ascended the throne of Kangla in 33 AD. (Kabui 1991:91) The economy of the state had to be regulated, but barter system was the only problem. The succeeding kings wanted to solve this problem. With this aim in view, bell metal coin (Sel) was introduced as a medium of exchange of Manipur state. Maharaja Ura Konthouba (568-658) issued bell metal coins; this can be regarded as the starting of monetization of the barter system in the state of Manipur. (Mutua Museum 1985: 2).

Khagemba also issued coins and introduced the practice of payment tax in cash. It was during the reign of Garibniwaz (1709-1748), fees for land recording was started to be paid in the term of Sel.(Kabui 1991:262) It is also mentioned that Chourajit Singh (1803-1813), Marjit Singh (1813-1819) and Gambir Singh (1826-1834) issued gold and silver coins, but also in a very limited quantity. (Gunindra 1985:75-84) But, the introduction of coins or currency did not completely replace the barter system. The activities of trade in the Manipur state had to be carried on with the barter system in one thing or the other along side the circulation of coins.

The king was the final authority for minting the coin. Lack of any financial institution, there was no strict rule and regulation in matter of issuing coins. The face value of the coin appeared to be equal to its intrinsic value. Therefore, bell metal coin could not be converted into the Sel by taking its weight. It was only circulated within the administrative territory of the Maharaja. Because of this, the foreign trade was to be conducted through barter system.

The Maharaja imported this bell metal from Burma and sometimes from Bengal. The minting process is very simple. The metal is first cast in little pellets and these are then softened by fire and place on the anvil; one blow of the hammer flattens the pellet into an irregularly round figure; a punch, with the word Sri cut on it, is then driven on it by another blow which finishes the process. The coin so produced is small in size weighing only about 16 grains. (Brown 1975:89)

The internal trade is carried on within the state. There was trading interaction between the hill tribes and the Meiteis. In the valley, trading activity was conducted exclusively by the women. Besides their household duties, women went up to the villages where there were salt wells to collect salt in exchange for fish, rice, etc. according to the demand of the salt manufacturers.

Likewise, some traders again took rice, salt and other goods to the villages nearby the lakes and bartered them for fish, water nut etc. (Mrs. Grimwood 1975: 55; Pemberton 1979:29) The hill tribes also traded among themselves, and sometimes, came down to the valley for exchange of goods from the Meitei traders. They traded in the item of goods such as plantain leaves, cotton, cane, bamboo products, spear, clothes etc. (Political Agent's tour dairy: No. 45 of 10th November 1908 and No. 43 of 23rd Oct. 1901; Hodson 1982: 45) The hill tribes used musket fire arms.

The Kuki tribes obtained the crude gun powder from the Meitei traders. The Meitei in turn got it from the Chinese merchants who visited the state during the reign of Khagemba in 1630. It is revealed that internal trade was the pricing of the goods so exchanged. The price or the value of goods was determined generally through bargaining between buyers and sellers against their respective goods.

In other words, the prevailing market condition was influenced by the degree of bargaining powers of buyers and sellers. (Political Agent's Tour dairy, No. 10, February, 1896) But, so far as the internal market was concerned, the inhabitants of both the valley and the hills could freely exchange various goods according to their mutual agreement based on the needs and products without any restriction.

Keithel means market in Manipuri; (The word Keithel is derived from Kei = storing place where food grains are stored and Thel = displaying the purchasable items). It is mentioned that some markets came up since the beginning of the 17th century; Maharaja Khagemba opened formally eleven markets in different parts of the state with Sana Keithel at the heart of the Imphal valley as the biggest market in 1614. (Khelchandra 1987:5)

According to T. C Hodson, the Khwairamband market was started by the end of the year 1580. It is also mentioned that King Mongyamba was the founder of the same market. (1908:23) Later on, the number of market places increased with the royal patronage. During the period of Seven years Devastation (1819-1826), the whole activity of the market place was completely stopped.

The market activities in Manipur were conducted mainly by women. There were different types of market; some outside the Imphal areas started its activities in the early morning and came to an end before afternoon and in some markets the activities started in the afternoon. They were known as morning market and evening market. There were some markets which opened only in a week. It was known as Hapta Keithei. It is said that it would be difficult to find more industrious women in India than the Manipuri women. (Basanta 1998:9)

R. Brown described the market operation system in the valley. There was no proper marketing shed. It was conducted in the open air by women, but the principal meeting place for women trading there was on a vacant plot of ground near the brick bridge in the Imphal capital. In the early part of the day, the women congregate with their wares for sale.

In the afternoon this market place is deserted and women all migrate to the side of the road leading to the gate, and very short distance from the bridge. The authority of the state did not make any attempt to construct the market shed. Women exposed to rain or sun as the case might be. Principal items of goods marketed were such as dry fish, rice, vegetables, clothes, ornaments and sweetmeats. About 3000 women used to assemble in the afternoon bazaar, men with the exception foreigners were not allowed to enter the market place; all the buying and selling was conducted by women. (1975:89)

Since ancient time, Manipur is connected by trade routes with South Asia, South East Asia and Central Asia; through these routes she has commercial and cultural contact with the neighbouring countries. There are hill routes travelled by immigrants, traders, invaders, etc. Manipur had a poor road and communication system during the pre-colonial period. People of Manipur are lucky to have in the valley some rivers such as the Imphal, the Nambul, the Iril, the Thoubal etc. all of which pass through the valley. They serve as the water ways for connecting Imphal and the villages in the eastern, south-eastern part of the valley. Though unsuitable for navigational purposes, they are used for transporting agricultural products about 15 to 20 mounds by boat. In the hills, the Barak River is used for transporting some agricultural products to Syhlet. (Bhattacharjee 1977: 87)

To be continued ..


* Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on October 21 2015.


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