hen I was a little girl, I would insist that my mother put mehndi on my hands in the traditional design—small dots circling a larger dot in the center of my palm.
What I didn’t know back in grade school was that the origin of this classic design probably sprung up in the desert areas of Rajasthan, Punjab and Gujarat. The story goes that people living in the Thar Desert coated their hands and feet with a paste made from crushed henna leaves. They noticed that as long as the color held, their body temperature remained low. The women soon wearied of monotonous reddish-brown palms and experimented with a single central dot and several smaller dots. That small innovation opened the creative floodgates—resulting in the complexity of henna designs today.
But the women of Thar weren’t the only ones painting their hands—the history of henna is intimately connected to the flow of human movement. Henna likely originated in the Middle East, possibly in Egypt. Archaeological evidence shows mummies dating back 5,000 years with henna-covered toenails. For the Egyptians, henna was part of the ritual preparation for the afterlife—body art supposedly smoothed the journey ahead. According to Catherine Cartwright Jones, henna artist, researcher and manager of the comprehensive Web site, The Henna Page, the Mughals brought henna to India in the 12th Century A.D. It evidently caught on, because by the time the 1600s rolled around, henna-covered hands were commonplace in India.
5 Steps To Long Lasting Mehndi
1. Wash the area to be hennaed. Avoid lotions and oils.
2. Wax and manicure prior to the henna application.
3. Leave the henna paste on for up to seven or eight hours. The color depends on each individual’s body chemistry. Henna darkens from orange to burgundy over a period of 48 hours.
4. Peel off the dry henna paste with a spoon or spatula. Avoid using water to remove mehndi.
5. Apply a mixture of lemon and sugar to the dry area.
And at that time, it was usually the barber’s wife who would apply henna to women. Paintings from the era show most women depicted with henna on their hands and feet. And while the English word “henna” traces back to the Arabic word for the plant “hinna,” most South Asians are more familiar with its synonym: the word mehndi. But those aren’t the only words for the reddish-brown paste: In Kerala, they call it mylanchi; in Konkani, it’s meti. And Tamils refer to henna as mayilainandi or marudhaani. In fact, the the use of henna is so widespread that there are more than 60 names for it in 43 languages.
Evolution of a Tradition
But by the 1990s, with more and more South Asians immigrating to the West and with celebrities like Madonna sporting mehndi in bold new designs, henna has been transformed from traditional to trendy. Mehndi artists furthered the evolution of this ancient art by using improved techniques to mix and apply henna—and also started incorporating new cultural elements.
In Toronto, mehndi artist Dimple Shah says, “I try to integrate Arabic, Hebrew, Egyptian, Hindu, Pashto, Chinese, and Western symbols and motifs and create my own pattern. It is true that there’s a wide range of symbols and motifs for traditional Indian designs. I try to explain the difference and make a design as per my clients needs.”
With the new designer-artist trend, clients can also anticipate personalized attention from mehndi artists such as Darcy Vasudev, who operates Henna Lounge in San Francisco. Her interest in henna began when she first saw hennaed brides in a National Geographic story. Ten years ago, a Moroccan friend invited her to a henna party where she left with a packet of fresh henna powder and began her design experiments. Vasudev has even traveled to India with her Indian husband and met with local artists.
“I love that henna incorporates the symbols of culture in a beautiful and auspicious manner,” she says. “I feel the application of henna is very spiritual—hours of detailed work that blooms into a beautiful pattern, which then begins to fade, and eventually returns to dust. It’s a wonderful metaphor for life.”
The Significance of Symbols
Vasudev also believes that mehndi has morphed into a status symbol—at least for now. “Henna was a traditional folk art, and in some cases henna actually replaced jewelry for families that couldn’t afford jewelry as gifts, so the henna designs sometimes emulated bangles and rings,” she says. “Today, mehndi has become trendy among all different groups of people, including those for whom it is not part of their tradition, and there is now a demand for ‘designer’ mehndi. There is a certain amount of status attached to having a well-known mehndi designer.”
But mehndi can indicate more than social status. Traditionally, mehndi has also signified a certain religious divide. Henna is typically used in Hindu and Muslim celebrations, not in Catholic or Christian ceremonies. But sometimes, mehndi has been the export from one culture to another—take the case of Bangladeshi Tehmna Raza, whose Pakistani friends applied henna on her for her wedding. And though she knew little about the henna tradition at the time, she went along with it because her friends were into it.
Black Henna Exposed
When shopping for henna, make sure you’re getting the real thing. Any henna paste that advertises “instant” results probably contains chemical dyes such as PPD, also known as black henna. It leaves a jet black stain after just a few moments on the skin. While natural henna has a strong earthy smell, black henna has a chemical or ammonia smell and can cause blisters, scarring and lifelong allergies.
Vasudev advises, “If you accidentally receive a chemical henna design, you should remove it immediately, and if you have any adverse reaction see a doctor immediately. It can take up for a week for the reaction to occur, so patch tests are not a good indicator of safety. Also, you may have a reaction on the second or third time you receive a chemical henna, so there is no way to tell what the future holds. There is also a high incidence of cross-reactivity, meaning you can later develop an allergy to hair dyes, as well as dyes in your clothing, especially the color black.”
Religious and cultural divisions aside, there are also other myths surrounding that reddish-brown tattoo. As Shah explains, “The most popular beliefs are the deeper the color, the stronger the bond between bride and mother-in-law. [With henna on her hands], the bride doesn’t have to do any household work—she is pampered and cared for.”
Vasudev adds, “Every family has different oral traditions about the meaning of henna, but the housework exemption is important in that traditionally the bride goes to live with her in-laws after marriage. This exemption from housework allows her to bond with her new husband and family. This tradition is also followed when a woman is hennaed during the childbirth time, to allow her time to bond with her infant child.”
Another legend attached to the application of henna has to do with the groom finding his initials in the mehndi design. “If the groom is unsuccessful in finding the initial he gifts his bride with some token,” Shah says. And Vasudev adds that sometimes, “It’s said if he can’t find them that the bride will be the dominant one in the marriage.”
But today, the complexity of henna designs continues to evolve. Traditional symbols and motifs, such as the face of the bride and groom, the groom kissing a bride, a dancing couple, Lord Ganesha, an elephant, a peacock and a dhol remain popular.
“The Arabic style, which includes lots of bold flowers, is very popular,” says Vasudev. “So are embellishments of glitter and gemstones that match the bride’s outfit. The Arabic style is faster to do than a traditional Rajasthan mehndi, and it also shows up great in photographs. Arabic designs are popular because they are something different but also very bold and beautiful. The gluing on of gemstones can complement the zardosi in a bride’s sari or lengha, while some brides opt for a design entirely in glitter that they can wash off at the end of the day, especially for today’s career girls.”
Of course, despite the trends, mehndi remains a timeless custom, says Vasudev. “For South Asians living in the West, many are anxious to get in touch with their traditions, and just plain natural henna is a great way to do that.”