Manipur is a state, regionally located in the North-Eastern part of India. The state is surrounded by Burma in the east, Nagaland in the north, Mizoram in the south, and Assam in the west. Manipur has a unique mosaic of ethnic diversity and geographical features. Different ethnic groups include the Meitei, Naga, Meitei Pangal (Muslim), and Kuki – Chin communities living together for centuries.
Manipur lies on a melting pot of culture, rich in aesthetic and traditional and surcharged with pristine glory. In Manipur valley, the Meiteis occupy the northern plains that were the most fertile area. The Manipuri Muslim (Meitei-Pangal), who were expert agriculturists, was allotted the land on rivers’ banks. The Brahmins were settled along with the Meiteis. The Lois and other groups, including those who had to undergo punishment for offences, immigrants, and those captured in wars and others, were forced to settle in the less fertile marshy area.
Agriculture was found to be the mainstay and also the way of life of the people. It provided the basic foundation of a self-sufficient village economy of the state. As far as trade is concerned, Manipur seems to be the favourite destination for the people. It has been the crossroads of Asian economic and cultural exchange for centuries. It has long connected the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia, enabling migration of people, culture, and religions.
The reliable sources on important features of early Manipur’s economic history are not sufficiently available; however, the archaeological and literary findings are helpful in tentatively reconstructing the essential characteristics of the financial system.
Trade added to the economic prosperity and uptick agricultural income. Trade between Manipur and other states was very simple formerly. There was no regular market. The most common practice was to get the goods exchanged at the houses of producers and consumers and sometimes, at a place, depending upon the mutual conveniences of these people.
As such, the market in this form had been considered as old as society. However, it is mentioned that some markets came up since the beginning of the 17th century during the reign of Maharaja Khagemba, who opened formally various markets in different parts of the state with Sana Keithel at the heart of Imphal valley as the biggest market in 1614.
Internal trade was an age-old economic process in Manipur. The unique feature of this trade in the state, particularly in the valley, was that trade was conducted mainly by the women. Internal trade was carried on essentially by women in the various open bazaars in the valley.
The business transaction in the market, selling and buying alike was done mostly by women. The women of the age group of 45-70 years were mainly involved in this trade. The women from different places come to this market to transact daily business. That was how the Manipuri women were struggling for their existence.
All the essential local commodities are made available here. The women’s market of Manipur (Wma Keithel) is the only market of women in India and probably could be the only in the world. The business transaction was done with the hilly people also. A Hao Keithel (ethic hill people’s market) was developed in Imphal for carrying out the transaction.
The most important bazaar in the valley was the Khwairamand Bazar or Sana Keithel in Imphal. So, besides their household duties, women were found busy in exchanging goods by going long distances.
For instance, they used to go to the villages where items were available to collect in exchange for fish, rice, and others according to the buyers’ and sellers’ demand. Similarly, some traders again took rice, salt, and other essential goods to the villages near the lakes and bartered them for fish, water nut, etc. The Thadou Kukis, the Tangkhul Luhupas, the Marings used to bring cotton, cane and bamboo goods, beads, spears, clothes, and others to the villages in the valley to get in return goods like rice, salt, clothes, and sometimes even Yu (alcohol), which were the essential items of their daily life.
A large number of markets were established during the period of Meidingu Senbi Khagemba (1592-1652) at different places in 1614, Sana Keithel, Kha Keithel, Moirang Keithel, Khuman Keithel, Phaibung Keithel, Children Keithel, Namphaon Keithel, Konglang Keithel, and Andro Keithel. It was developed by observing suitable conditions of business transactions in relation to respective areas.
The economy was improved during the colonial rule in Manipur (1891-1947). Technological development had become rapid: bell metal industry, blacksmith or iron industry, weapon manufacturing gun-making tannery, was highly developed. The bell metal coin known as ‘sel’ was in circulation.
Subsequently, it seems the money economy gradually replaced the barter economy. Around the time, Manipur had become reasonably resourceful. However, there appeared to be a lack of standardization in the minting of the coins. It was found later that the coins were manufactured in the private mints.
Monetization started taking place gradually in the economy of Manipur after the coming of the British. There was no organized financial institution in Manipur until the Manipur Co-operative Bank Limited was opened for the first time in 1939. As for the conditions of the markets, the records indicate that until the advent of the British rule in the state towards the close of the 19th century, most of the Manipur markets were by the roadsides without any proper sheds or shelter.
Thus, it was after the subjugation of the state by the British in 1891 that the Sadar Bazar and the Maxwell Bazar were opened by Col. Maxwell and J. Shakespear, respectively, with a limited number of sheds. Maharaja Churachand Singh (1891-1941) started the construction of market stalls with corrugated iron roofs at Sana Keithel.
Besides internal trade, the state’s people were also found to have established trading relations beyond its boundaries with other states. This state of northeast India had revealed having close relations with Burma, Thailand, China, and the other Indian states. In 1630, during the reign of Maharaja Khagemba (1597-1652), it was documented that the Chinese merchants visited Manipur to accelerate their trade. There was evidence of having trade relations with China.
The trade between Manipur and Yunan province of China was recorded in the chronicles of Manipur in 1630. It appears that Manipur had been in constant contact with Indian Tai and Chinese traders and indirectly with Roman traders in the early centuries of the Christian era. The influence of Chinese trade and technology was felt in Manipur, namely, the introduction of silk and silkworm rearing, brick making, and the making of gun powder.
Since Manipur occupied the linking place of the eastern and the western states, it was also considered one of the most suitable centres for traders from Indian provinces and Burma. During the reign of Charairongba (1697-1709), Manipur had maintained regular contact with the Burmese and Shans since the conquest of Kabaw valley in the fifteenth century as the Kabaws or the Kathe Shans of the valley were the subjects of the kingdom of Manipur.
There were constant trade contacts and social relationship between Manipur and Burma. Thus, Manipur could connect with the trading centres of Silchar, Lakhimpur, Burma valley, Mohung-Dijua, and Kabaw, which were other chief trading centres in the 19th century. Silchar in Cachar was taken as the Bengalis meeting place, the Cacharis, the Lushais, and the Manipuris for trade. Golaghat in Sibsagar of Assam and some parts in the Naga Hills were also the meeting places for the Manipuris with the ethnic hill people occupying the village.
Manipuris used to go as far as Sylhet, Calcutta, and other Bengal markets for trading purposes in later years. However, it appears that the hilly trade route, before the lifting of trade barriers in the form of tax and duty in 1891, was very limited. Thus, the opening of the cart road connecting the state with Kohima in 1895 accelerated Manipur’s external trade. The people did not depend much on external trade for their basic needs before 1891. The trade continued as late as 1813 AD.
The reign of Garibniwaz (1709–1748) was economically a prosperous period in Manipur’s history. The king himself engaged in a large number of development activities. The king was a religious reformer, a great conqueror, and a great builder of the Hindu temple. He also undertook a number of public works like the excavation of towns named after him as Ningthem Pukhri in Imphal in 1725.
He also constructed a number of buildings at the palace, including a five-storeyed one, as referred to in the royal chronicles Cheitharol Khumbaba. The same source also mentions that, during his reign, a large number of elephants were caught from the neighbouring countries. There was trade with other countries during his reign. Horses from China were brought and perhaps from the Chinese caravans by the king. The acquisition of elephants was both for war and ceremonial purpose and an indicator of royalty’s economic power and grandeur in the kingdom.
Manipur is one of the routes between south Asia and southeast Asia, and central Asia. With the coming of metal tools, mostly bronze, copper, and tin during the historical period from Thailand and the upper Burma cultural zone, Manipur’s metal civilization was developed through the trade. This trade intercourse was maintained through land routes across the mountain ranges between Eastern India and upper Burma, two of which were through Manipur hills.
However, it was only in the 18th century that the British East-India Company attempted to strengthen its trading activities in India’s North-East provinces, including Manipur. A treaty containing many provisions for promoting trade was signed in 1762 between Manipur and the British East-India Company. This treaty provided the British authority with an opportunity to make a door through which they entered into close contact with Manipur in later years.
It was further strengthened only after the Anglo- Burmese war (1824-26). As a result, the penetration of outsiders in Manipur increased gradually, and the door of external trade was formally opened when the British occupied the state in 1891. With the dawn of the eighteenth century, Manipur attained the zenith of her power like the Ahoms of the neighbouring Assam. Manipur also achieved the full development of her culture and state economy.
The economy of Manipur before 1891 was represented by a more or less self-sufficient economy with the village enjoying simple traditional life. The economy was not organized properly, and it was traditional. Moreover, with the British coming in Manipur, there was an expansion of economic activities, especially in the valley. The economy was modernized, and different industries began to develop but did not favour the native people.
Even though many new rules and regulations were introduced for the revenue collection system, the British hardly did anything to improve the quantity and quality of Manipur’s economic production. Annual surveys and inspections were conducted just to check if the peasants were paying the tax on time or not. All of this shows that the British were more interested in extracting the revenue and surplus than actually focusing on the state’s developments, which they anyway claimed to do so.
Despite such negative influences, the colonial rule did provide better facilities to the people in terms of monetization of the economy or market facilities or making tax as a regular revenue income. There was greed, no doubt, in their intentions, but knowingly or unknowingly, they helped Manipur people develop their social, economic, or political status.