Henna, the temporary paste-derived body art used in the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent has become a familiar sight to many, but it is more than just a decorative practice adopted by the west! The art form comes from significant historic and cultural roots that are as detailed as the designs themselves.
Some documentation indicates that henna could be up to 9000 years old. Over these centuries, the art of henna has been practiced in the Middle East, Pakistan, India, and Africa. Henna, (known as mehndi in Hindi and Urdu), in Indian tradition is commonly applied at Hindu weddings onto the bride’s skin.
Mehndi Night is when the bride, her family, and friends all celebrate the wedding day to come. Dances, games, and other lively events take place that have been prepared for months in advance, while the bride gets extensive and intricate henna patterns done on her hands and feet that can extend far into other parts of her body. The bridal patterns are traditional, customary, and are often done by multiple artists.
The henna stains are symbolic to terms of the wedding as well. Traditionally, the deeper and darker the stain, the better the marriage—and relationship with the mother-in-law—will be. The stain duration also holds in its longevity the amount of time that a bride doesn’t have to do housework.
Today, brides usually have their henna done before Mehndi Night so that they too can take part in the festivities, and so that the stain becomes deeper by their wedding day.
Henna is often used for self-expression on days other than one’s wedding day, such as on birthdays, holidays, for beauty purposes, and artistic practice.
The paste is made from the flowering henna plant. In ancient Egyptian times, Cleopatra herself is documented to have used henna for decorative purposes. In some cases, mummies were adorned with henna patterns as well.
Henna is usually drawn on in thin lines, paisley patterns, teardrops, or flowers, just to name a few. Each design carries its own symbolism. For instance, a diamond can mean enlightenment, a crescent moon reflects a newborn baby, and a peacock symbolizes desire.
“Traditional Hindu marriages are long drawn out affairs,” says Travel Saga channel Geethanjali, highlighting henna’s medicinal purposes amidst its cultural use. “They create a lot of stress and sometimes fever. Applying henna on the hands and feet brings down fever and reduces tension, cooling the body,” keeping a bride cared for during her long ceremony. She is then dressed in bangles, jewelry, and her traditional sari.
Henna is a popular decorative accessory commonly seen in the present day, but it is important to keep in mind the cultural echoes it holds. Plus, knowing Cleopatra used henna is one badass fun-fact.
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