For over five thousand years the art of henna (Arabic) or mehndi (Hindi) has been used as a way of enhancing beauty. Legend has it that Mohammad used henna to dye his beard and that the henna flower was the Prophet’s favorite. The plant has since been associated with positive magic and “provides a link to an ancient age full of good and bad spirits.” It holds a place in religious, magical, and cultural practice.
Enough though there is some controversy over the creation of henna as a dying agent, the earliest clear evidence of henna application appears on the hair and nails of Egyptian mummies. It is believed that the henna plant, Lawsonia inermis, originated in Persia and is now found throughout parts of Asia and the Middle East. Henna has also been used for medicinal purposes, to dye cloth and leather as well as hair, and to color the manes of horses and fur of other animals.
In Arab weddings, brides would, and still, participate in a traditional henna ceremony. Henna is a symbol of good luck, health, and sensuality and thus used for marital purposes as well. Typically, the bride’s hands and feet are painted with intricate designs with a paste of dried henna leaves. Black henna is reserved for the soles of feet and hands while red henna is used for the tips of fingers and toes (as seen above). It is carefully applied and needs to dry for long periods of time without being removed, bumped, or otherwise touched; this is when the staining happens. (The longer the paste is left to dry, the darker and deeper the stain will be.) Henna can be used in the actual ceremony as well. What is the religious implication of using henna in weddings? As far as I can tell, each culture’s take on henna is different, but the purposes are all similar.
Each henna artist usually has a personal recipe and a preferred technique. Some artists will use toothpicks, plastic cones, or tools from henna kits; all of these make the application easier, but require different skill sets. The paste is also made according to the artist’s skill level – if the paste is thicker, then it is harder to apply and if it is thinner, it is easier. The designs range from simple to intricate in every culture, but can have many distinct differences. Arabic henna designs are usually large, floral patterns on the hands and feet. Indian mehndi involves fine, thin lines for lacy, floral and paisley patterns covering entire hands, forearms, feet and shins. African henna patterns are bold, large geometric designs.
Modern day Arab women still use henna for body adornment, but in a more fun and decorative way. Western societies have also adopted henna as a way to temporarily tattoo oneself (as seen right by the University Program Council at Ohio University) in addition to other methods of self-decoration. What is the cultural implication of henna as used in present day societies? I personally have gone to a party with henna and my friends and I match our henna designs. For me, it’s used as a personal bonding measure between my closest friends. Have you ever tried henna? What’s your favorite design?