Mendhi is also known as henna is a traditional form of body art applied on the bride's feet and hands. The intricate design resembles a pair of dark lace gloves, usually of a dark orange color. The name comes from the plant with the same name.
The word mehndi derives from Sanskrit. On the other hand, henna originates from Khanna or hinna and was recorded in 1590. Both words refer to the plant Lawsonia Inermis or Lawsonia alba. The bible mentions the plant named Camphire twice in the book of Canticles.
"Your skin is a paradise of pomegranates with the choicest fruits, henna plants along with spikenard plants; spikenard adn saffron, cane and cinnamon, along with all sorts of trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest perfumes." - Song of Solomon 4:13-14
"Do come, O my dear one, let us go forth to the field; do let us lodge among the henna plants." - King Solomon, song of Songs 7:11.
It appears that henna originated the middle east some 9000 years ago.
Henna leaves were ground into a green powder which became a paste when mixed with water. What made mehndi famous? Its characteristic to stain the human skin. Also, the paste has relaxing properties, releases rashes and is a skin conditioner.
The first proof of usage of henna to adorn a body is the discovery of a mummy dating from 3500 BCE. The woman had her hair weave dyed with henna. As a side note, that was the oldest wig ever discovered. Finally, Egyptians used the plant to stain the mummies wraps.
Also, some Persian miniature paintings feature people who wear henna designs. It looks like Egyptians were the first to use the plant to adorn and beautify their bodies.
Important to note the fact that Egyptian women used the henna paste along with makeup. In those days, they used malachite - a form of copper ore to prepare makeup. Also, instead of lipstick they used red ochre. In Egypt, it was common practice to rub the plant over one's body. That would keep it cool and when applied on the nails would strengthen and nourish them.
The men used the plant to nourish and dye their hair and eyebrows on a regular basis, not only for special events.
In ancient Egypt, it was believed that the flowers could bring the dead back to life. As such, they used it to paint their hands.
In India, ancient cave paintings depict women wearing henna on their feet and hands.
Nowadays, in the Middle East and South Asia women used the the paste during weddings. Even more, mehndi is present during the following fesivals: Eid, Diwali, Vat Purnima, Bhai Dooj, Durga Pooja, Teej, Karva Chauth, etc.
In the book Henna's Secret Hystory, the author, Marie Anakee Miczak proves that henna originated from Egypt. Here are a few arguments that support her theory. First, the plant's name is found many times in hieroglyphics. Next, henna leaves have been found in tombs. Also and many antique paintings show women with the hands stained by henna. Furthermore, we have samples hair, tissue, nails and cloth that were exposed to henna.
Cleaopatra's Favorite Perfume
History tells us that Cleopatra henna perfume was her favorite and she wore it when she met Mark Antony. It should be noted that according to hystorians, Cleopatra was not a beautiful woman. Still, she mastered the art of seduction. She used to dye her hair with henna. Also, she used perfumes based on henna, cinnamon, honey and an extract made of orange blossoms. Cleopatra and other Egyptian women used henna to tint their lips. It is fair to say that nowadays we find that look no longer appealing.
Henna Travels the World
Birds helped mehndi spread from Africa to the regions where henna grows today. They ate berries and then carried the seeds during the migrations to North and East.
The Egyptians used in 3500 BCE. The Jews knew the plant in 1725 BCE and the Greeks in 1300 BCE. The Arabs discovered it around 900 BCE and Persians in 850 BCE. It arrives in China in 250 BCE and in the Roman Empire and India in 200 BCE. Sicilians use it in 50 AD, Berbers in 500 AD and Turks 600AD. It travels to Indonesia and Africa around 700 AD, Japan in 700 AD, Spain 712 AD and Malaysia in 1400 AD.
The famous plants has been around for a long time and grew in many areas from North Africa, Middle East, Southasia. As a result, it has many names. To complicate things further, the names describe the plant in various stages of growth or parts of it. The powder is made from the bush, but to extract the henna oil the plant would have to be mature, reaching up to 20 feet. Also, the blossoms and flowers can be used, which complicates things further. Here are the names used to describe this species:
The Arabs called it Hinna or Henna, while the Egyptians named it Henu. Apparently, the name Hinna comes from the Persian HNN meaning tenderness.
The ancient Greeks called the plant Kypros or Kupros while the Latins used the word Cypri to describe the same species.
Interestingly, the Chinese used a name unrelated to any of the above people: Wu-bai-zu or Wu-pei-tzu, Tche Kia Hoa and also Hei-na (derived from Arabic).
In India, depending on the region, the plant name was spelled: Mehndi, Mendi, Medi, Nakrize, Bind, Mindi, Gorante, Goranti, Korate, and the Pakistani call it Korinta.
In Cyprus, it was knows as Kypros, in Malaysia as inai or berinai, in Sri Lanka as maratoli while in the Philippines it was called Cinamomom, Cinamomo del Pais, Kolinta, Kulanta, Kuranta and Korinta.
Other names used to describe this plant are: Mignonette (petite darling), Roseda (refering to its calming effects), Faria, Mendy, Mignonette Tree, St. Francis' Mignonette, Alquena, Jamacia Mignonette, Fouden, AL-henna, Meti, Beberiska, El-henna, Paschar Kuku, Tsume Hana (Japan), Mandee, Egyptian Privet, Orcanete, Alcanete, Kurabaka, Medudi, Quene, Bhaurara, Alcaneta, Smoot Lawsonia, Gol Henna, Han, Chinne, Hina, Mendi, Pannna, Muhanoni, Muheni, Hanuni, Hinai, Lhenna, Lhenni, Hen'na, Hna, Kena, Hennastrauch, Henna Tree, ALkanna, Alcana, Alhena, Henne, Hanabandan, Gulhina, Krapeu, Alcanna, Kina, Alchena, Lalle, Reseda de Cayenne, Simru, Tamra-henni, Oleum Cyprineum, Marudani, Alquena, Jan Chih Chia Ts'Ao, Iswan, Henne Suractive, Egyptian Ligustrum, Alcharma, Henneh, Iplik Kinasi, Henne noir, Alchanna, Khenna, Lele, Henne naturel inde, Shazab, Hana, Inni, Danbin, Inai Parasi, Sahshara, Alhea, Yoranna, Tien Kao and the Flower or Paradise.
What Is The Significance of Mehndi and Its Benefits?
Nowadays the design can include symbols or it can be just ornamental.
It is believed that the paste brings good luck to the bride. In the Islamic holy books, it is said that the Prophet Mohamed applied the henna paste to the sick and served it as a drink.
Besides the spiritual beliefs, the mehndi has also practical benefits. As the plant is combined with eucalyptus oil which acts as a perfume, relaxes the bride and keeps her body cool. Also, it is said that eucalyptus oil is a potent aphrodisiac.
The Mehndi Ceremony is also known as Henna Night. It is a ritualistic application of the beautiful henna designs to the bride and her female friends before the wedding day. The paste is applied only on their hands and feet. It marks a rite of passage to the next era in the woman's life and can it also appears in bat mitzvahs and sweet sixteens.
It is very common for a large South Asian wedding to have around 100 women taking part in the mehndi ceremony. We need to note that the bride's design is the most beautiful and the most elaborate.
Many of the designs applied include lotus flowers, representing the bride's purity. Also, the intricate lines include the name of the bride and groom.
The groom can not attend the party and but will afterwards look for his name or initials hidden in the design.
Because drawing the designs is a complex and lengthy process, the has to be entertained. As such, the guests engage in dances and when her mehndi is completed, the bride joins the family on the dance floor.
To keep the guests entertained, the bride often hires bands or belly dancers for the party.
The party includes dancing, food and stories. At the end of the mehndi ceremony, the bride offers guests gifts. They range from bangles, dupattas, pomegranate boxes. cookies, floating and scented candles, handmade favours, bracelets, to hand-painted mirrors and more.
In Sikh weddings, after the mehndi is applied, the bride receives twenty-one ivory bracelets during the chooda ceremony. The bracelets are adorned with kalira (ornaments) she has to wear for forty days.
The Henna Night is considered by many scolars to be an Egyptian creation. Still, the first documented use is in an Assyrian text dating from the 7th century BCE.
Here is wow the Night of Henna is called in various parts of the world.
Egypt: Laylet el-henna
Arabic world: Halat al henna
Malaysia: Upacara berinai
India: Mannziraath, Sanchit or Mehndiraat
Turkey: Kina gecesi
Afghanistan: Shao-i khinna
Do Men Get Henna?
In Ancient India, the man would stain their hands with turmeric and mendhi. That was as a representation of the outer and inner sun.
In several regions in Kashmir and Bangladesh men also have their hands decorated with masculine designs.
In Sikh weddings, both brides and grooms have their feet and hands adorned with mendhi. In this case, the paste is made of henna, tea, lemon juice and oil.
Nowadays, man are breaking stereotypes and rock henna designs worn as temporary tatoos.
In Northern India in Rajasthan, grooms get elaborate designs for their wedding.
Why is Henna Used at Weddings?
Many cultures believe henna to have "Barakah" or blessing properties. As such, to have a happy marriage, one has to have henna for the wedding. Also, henna calms the bride and cools down her body. Even more, it is a form of body art that beautifies the bride. Also,because essential oils are mixed into the henna paste, they act as an aphrodisiac.
Also, in the past, henna was very expensive and was only used for special occasions. As a wedding is the most important day of someone's life, this is why brides splurged.
Henna Around the World
Henna is used in wedding festivities in the following countries: Algeria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Israel, Malaysia, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, Yemen, Egypt, India, and Iran.
Here is an interesting fact. In parts of Scotland, the groom's feet are blackened the night before his wedding. It is interesting to note that black henna is only used on the hands and the feet and the sottish tradition is obviously borrowed.
Afghani people believed that the mehndi brings joy and good luck to the couple.
In Bulgaria, Romani population clean the bride during the wedding celebrations. The gypsies associate henna with the blood the virgin bride will shed on her wedding night. The gypsies believe that the darker the henna the stronger the bond between the husband and wife.
In Kuwait, the female relatives of the bride bathe her and adorn her hands and feet with black henna or a black dye. Meanwhile, the groom his relatives and drummers proceed to the bride's family.
The Moroccan paint the bride's hands and feet henna designs and cover her with a fine fabric made of white wool. After the henna ceremony, the bride's brother places a silver coin in her shoe for future prosperity. The bride's feet cannot touch the ground. As such, her brother carries the bride to the car that will drive her to the wedding ceremony. The bride has to hide under veils so nobody can see her.
The Jewish population of Morocoo uses henna ceremony in a totally different manner. Traditionally, during the bedeken ceremony, the groom unveils the bride to make sure he marries the right girl. After all, Jacob married Leah instead of Rachel because he did not distinguish her under the veil. That is however not the subject of this article.
The Moroccan Jews apply henna on the palm of the bride and groom so that they can be easily identified. Also, henna will ward off the evil eye.
The Jews call henna chinah. Some believe chinah is an acronym for the duties of the wife: to bake challah, to light Shabbath candles and to observe the Jewish laws regarding the family.
In Niger, the brides' faces are painted with a design made of dots and crosses and their hands are adorned with henna as a symbol of virginity and fertility.
In Turkey, the right hand of the bride is decorated with henna and she receives gold coins she holds in her right hand.
Shephardic Jewish brides also decorate their hands and feet with the famous paste.
Mehndi has bactericide, astringent, sedative, vermifuge, diuretic effects. Also, henna oil contains esters (soothing, anti fungal) and add a fresh fruity smell), aldehydes (sedative and antiinflamatory) and bionone (anti-fungal and bactericid).
Henna's antifungal properties recommended it as a treatment for athlete's foot, leprosy, boils, dandruff, eczema, psoriasis and to make perfumes. In warm climates the plant was used to combat flesh infections caused by heat and bacteria. Also, the plant's cooling effect alleviates bruises, headaches, skin diseases and sore throat. The Egyptians also used it as a sunscreen to keep their skin supple and protect it from the sun. Even more, the Greeks treated fractures and nerves with it.
It is worth noting that ancient Mexicans used it as a poison. In other parts of the world as a treatment for fevers, herpes, hysteria, jaundice, eczema, lecorrhea, scabies, candida, burns, boils, ulcers, venereal diseases, sores, whitlow, ophtalmia, tumors, myalgia, onychosis and parturition.
A common practice in Egypt was to hold a ball of henna mixed with liquid to cool the body. A poem mentioned that a pharaoh used henna to heal the heat in his limbs. As a side note, they used the plant to dye their beards and hair. The Egyptians also used the plant to treat hemorrhoids and to cure scorpion and snake bites.
Kazakhs and Uzbekhs applied it under arms and on the feet and placed leaves in their shoes as a deodorant. They also used it to treat arthritis.
Many cultures used henna as a suture substance. Why? When it dries, it hardens and helps holding the damaged tissue together for quick healing.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Uses
A Chinese proverb is telling us that "Finding henna is like finding a wild, centuries old Ginseng root." That proves the respect mehndi earned among the chinese traditional medics. The Chinese used it for hair restoration, headaches and blood purification.
Ayurvedic Medicine Uses
An Indian proverb states that "Henna is a woman's lifelong friend."It is a documented fact that mehndi was used to reduce blood flow (during menstrual cycles), to threat breathing problems, impotence, hair thinning, dysentery and abdominal pains, skin problems, wounds, diarrhea, and fungal infections.
Cosmetics, Aromatherapy and Massage Oil
Its chemical components (esters, aldehydes and bionone) make henna oil ideal for both aromatherapy and massage. It has a soothing effect, it is antiseptic and in the past it was inhaled to treat heat headaches. Like lavender, mehndi is used to facilitate sleep. By placing a few drops on the sheets and pillows, it enhances the quality of sleep.
Traditionally it was inhaled to aleviate headaches, reduce frustration and anger. Joint massage is an effective painkiller.
The Chinese, rich women used the galls of henna in a concoct to give their skin a golden color and to act as sunblock.
Becasue its chemical components Gallic Acid and Mannitol are natural insect repellants the plant was used to repel bugs.
How Long Does it Last?
Generally, the design remains intact for about one week and starts fading after that.
In a nutshell, there are three styles of designs.
Indian designs are very detailed and include plans, animals, birds, the sun, lacy patterns, Hindu gods and the bride and groom's portraits. They cover a large part of the brides' fingers, hands and forearms as well as their feet and shins.
Here are a few elements used in henna designs: paisley, stars, ceremonial water pitchers, fish, butterflies, mangoes, parrots, sweets, musical instruments, watches and jewelerry, Moghul flowers, henna flowers. Also popular are dots, swirls, wines, arches, mandalas and teardrop fans, spirals, humps, peacocks and feathers. They are complemented by intricate tendril designs.
The Indian designs often narrate a story and leave little empty spaces. That distinguishes the style from the Arabic, which is more minimalist in nature.
The fingers are decorated with linear designs, rings, and may be dipped in henna coloring the tip of the fingers and the fingernails.
The designs can be mirrored (both hands have the same designs but flipped) or complementary (when held together, the hands form a unique design forming hearts, birds or other elements).
For weddings, the most used design elements are: the peacock (a symbol of love), the swastika (an ancient symbol of good luck and prosperity), images of the couple, the sedan chair on which the bride is carried by her friends and relatives.
The Islamic doctrine does not allow the usage of animals or people. As such, the designs use geometric patterns, dots, checkers and are more spaced out than their Indian counterparts. The Arabic designs cover mostly the palms of the brides and leave more space between them.
African designs include bold geometric forms and highly stylized flowers. The African designs are done using a black paste which is potentially toxic due to Para-Phenylenediamine (PPD), a substance that makes the designs colors more intense and more resistant to fading.
The african elements of design include spirals, thorns, blades, rings and dots, axes, barbs and variations of those.
In Morocco, people paint their doors with henna for good luck and to scare evil spirits.
In the deserts, people use the paste to lower the body temperature and for example in Saudi Arabia, the hands and feet are painted as solid colors without any elements of design.
By mixing ammonia and lime powder with the henna paste, the orange color of the skin becomes black.
Be cautious when using black mehndi as sometimes is tainted by adding Para-Phenylenediamine (PPD) a substance that can cause poisoning. Some people report being unable to wake up, decreased body temperature, increased pulse, weakness, nausea, vomiting and other negative symptoms.
Our advice is to avoid black henna before your wedding. After all, you don't want to end up in an ER room.
Nowadays, it is very common for the modern brides to use a combination of Indian and Arabic elements which call for the design a certain uniqueness.
Even more, today's brides experiment with modern designs combining Indian, Arabic patterns and even cartoon characters. When it comes to creativity, the sky is the limit. The designs include lotus flowers, peacocks, bride and groom drawings, imitations of rings and other jewels and geometric models.
The original paste undergoes a series of transformations on the human skin. From a light orange color it oxidizes and turns darker orange, brown and black cherry. In general, the longer the paste is left on the skin, the darker the final color.
While in the past only henna paste was used, nowadays the mehndi artists use a variety of commercial products including white, black, red, gold, shimmering henna.
Also, it is becoming more common to embed in the pattern semi-precious stones/rhinestones and glitter dust.
How to Prepare the Henna Paste?
If you feel the urge to create your own designs, here are the steps required to prepare the paste.
Step 1. Find the Ingredients
For this project you will need:
100g of henna powder. Please use powder specifically for skin as the hair one is not potent enough to color the skin. Make sure the powder is fresh as over time it loses its potency.
30 ml cajeput oil. You can also use other essential oils such as olive, mustard, eucalyptus, lavander or clove oils.
1.25 cups of lemon juice
You will also need a glass bowl and a plastic wrap.
Step 2. Mix the Ingredients
Mix the ingredients thoroughly to make sure there are no lumps and use the plastic wrap to seal the paste so that no air is left. In contact with air, the paste oxidates and that ruins it.
Step 3. Wait and Mix Again
Leave the paste at room temperature. Wait for 24 hours or longer and mix again to ensure the last lumps are eliminated.
Step 4. Place the Paste Into a Sealed Bag
Fill the cones you want to use and place the rest of the paste into a sealed bag. Store the bag in the freezer. When you need it, thaw it and you will have fresh henna paste.
Traditionally, no tools were used to apply the paste. By rubbing the paste between the fingers, the artist would form a thread that would be then applied on the bride's hands. This process requires years of experience and it is very time consuming.
It is very important that no tools touch the skin and only the henna paste is applied. Also, there is no erasing in the process, so experience is paramount here.
With the advent of plastic and recyclable plastic bags henna artists rolled the bags into cones filled with the paste.
Other technique uses sticks to draw the design using a solution of water, sugar and lemon. Then the hands are painted solid with the paste. After a few hours, the paste is scrapped and the areas painted with the lemon solution remain white on a dark orange background. If you want, think of a negative photo today's designs.
The sticks can also be used to draw the patterns using the mehndi paste.
The most common technique is to use cones filled with paste to apply the paste. Alternatively, a syringe (without the needle) can be used.
Applying the paste can take several hours and it is not uncommon for the henna artists to spend north of 5 hours creating the artwork. The application starts with the forearms and continues to the hands and tips of the fingers. The paste reacts with the skin and colors it giving it a distinct look.
The Indians believe that the more intense the color of the design, the more powerful the love between the newlyweds will be. Also, the darker the henna, the more the bride's mother-in-law will love her.
The designs are believed to bring the couple joy, luck, blessings and achievements.
To preserve the delicate patterns, the bride cannot use her hands until the morning after the mehndi ceremony, so her friends take care of the bride. To make sure the fragile designs are intact, the hands are often covered with cotton balls. Also, the paste has to stay moist so a solution of sugar and lemon juice is used, which also helps the pattern achieve a deeper color.
Usually, the skin is colored when the paste becomes a dark red. It is then when the hands are covered with mustard oil, rubbed thoroughly and then the paste scrapped.
Once the paste is removed, the skin is rubbed with mustard oil once again. That the skin has to remain unwashed for at least twelve hours. The process also darkens the dye further.
As we mentioned before, henna was used for esthetic purposes in the past only in South Asia, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf and Indonesia.With the advent of the internet and Bollywood movies, now westerners are more familiar with the body art.
Did You Know?
Henna was used to dye clothes?
In the past, henna was used as currency.
Henna has properties similar to those of aspirin. That is the reason it is used for headaches.
A pound of henna perfume cost in the ancient world the equivalent of $20,000 today.
The island of Cyprus is believed to have its name given after the plant (named Kypros in Greek). In Iliad, Homer refers to the island of Cyprus as Kupros - a reference to the fact that it hosted many henna plants.
The prophet Mohamed is believed to have said "Use henna, it makes your head lustruous, cleanss your heart, increases your sexual vigor and will be witness in your graves."
Kama Sutra provide a balsam that helps restore thinning hair
During the mummification process, the Egyptians attached fake nails dyed in henna.
During the Spanish Inquisition, dying your nails with henna was considered a crime and was severely punished. It is believed that the Inquisition targeted Jews and Muslims as they were the ones using mehndi. Emperor Carlos V enacted a racially motivated law whereby Catholics could not use henna.
In Vietnam and some parts of India, a concoct of mehndi was used to stain the teeth. Having dark teeth was a standard of beauty lost over the centuries.
In 1254 AD, there was an epidemy of cholera in Iran. Because the population ran out of water, some started drinking henna decocts and were cured.
Tatars and Uzbeks used hena to make their hair fairer.
Dried mehndi leaves were placed in the pockets to repel bugs.
A paste was used on feet during outbreaks of small pox.
Egyptians rarely succumbed to cancer and modern medicine is studying the effects of mehndi in combating cancer.
In the Islamic world, unmarried virgins and widows were not permitted to use henna as it has a slight scent of sperm.
When travelling, try to avoid bringing henna along as sometimes tests cannot distinguish between marijuana and mehndi. Better safe than sorry.
It was thought that by applying henna on a particular area of the body would strengthen it. That is the reason why it was used by musicians (on their fingers), pearl divers and fishermen.
The cone used today to apply the paste was introduced by English cake decorators in India.
Henna is never used for sad occasions.
Some forms of Judaism forbid using artificial cosmetics, so henna is a natural adornment.
Avant-garde or westernized South Asian brides do not use henna as they consider it old school.
In India, cows are also adorned with orange henna during festivals.
In Morocco, prisoners were decorated with henna before being killed.
In the Middle East, sheep were adorned with henna before being sacrificed.
Muslim men are not allowed to use henna for adornment but that does not apply in cases of war (henna is believed to give strength) or for medical purposes.
In Africa, mehndi is also used on dead people to reduce the smell and adorn the dead relative. Even men are adorned with henna upon dying in some parts of India. Muslim men can also use henna to secure their admission to heaven.
Prostitutes and not only them used henna as a means to abort unwanted babies. Also, mothers killed their babies by covering them in henna.
In India, in the state of Rajastan, women's feet and hands were adorned with mehndi before being buried alive along their husbands in a ritual called Sutee.
In the past, prostitutes applied henna on their hands to prevent being infected with sexually transmitted diseases.
The mummy of Rameses II contains traces of henna.
The Romans used to dye their hair with henna but did not use it as a body decoration.
During the middle ages Sicilian women used to color the tip of their fingers at Christmas.
If you want to have a henna design applied on your hands, do not use sunblock, oil or hand cream for 24h before the process.
Some artists first draw a design with a pencil before applying the paste.
Marie Anakee Miczak - Henna's Secret History_ The History, Mystery and Folklore of Henna-iUniverse (2001)
George Peter Monger - Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons-ABC-CLIO (2004)
Cartwright Jones Catherine - The Techniques of Persian Henna