From decorating brides’ hands, to being used as a temporary tattoo on arms and bellies (particularly abroad), mehndi/henna has gained international appeal. Thanks to stars like Madonna and Britney Spears, mehndi today is turning into a fashion statement for everyone, regardless of their age, gender or race.
The art of adorning women with henna is part of a heritage and traditional lifestyle stretching back several millennia. The ancient Egyptians used it as an embellishment as far back as 5,000 years ago, and there are many schools of thought suggesting that they introduced it to India in the last 3,000 years. The spread of its influence has continued through the centuries, with the use of mehndi now being common from northern Africa to Indonesia. Increasing emigration to Western countries has led to a rise in awareness — and alternate uses — for mehndi worldwide.
There is no single correct use of henna; the history of its use includes it having medicinal properties, being an ingredient in perfumes and as a hair dye. Though it has come to be most recognised for the artwork created on hands and feet for brides before their weddings and while celebrating Eid — even these designs are as varied as the artists who create them.
Traditionally, Persian designs for mehndi are flowing shapes and patterns; Middle Eastern designs are cascading designs with flowery images; Indian designs are intricately detailed, often so fine that they need to be applied with a needle; and Bedouin styles often include larger blocks of colour.
Moreover, traditional henna can vary in shades while remaining recognisably reddish-brown. However, while the tradition of henna art has caught on, ‘black henna’ is often being used (an ironic title, as it does not usually contain any actual henna). Indeed, the regular alternatives of indigo or even chemical-based hair dyes have often proved harmful in ways that the traditional henna never has, with common allergic reactions.
The extra detail and attention needed for a bride’s mehndi comes at a price. The henna can cost up to Rs5,000 for her special day, compared to costs closer to Rs50 for simpler, day-to-day designs in Pakistan. Saba from Rubila’s Salon says, “Mehndi is an important factor for brides; they want perfection on their hands for their big day. Sometimes they are the ones who tell us what they want rather than us suggesting what will look good on them.” Almost all beauty parlours across the country offer application of all styles of mehndi from Rajasthani to Sudani, at affordable rates. In Karachi, Meena Bazaar is famous for its mehndi services at cheaper rates as compared to commercial parlours. Zahida Baji from Meena Bazar says, “I’ve been in the mehndi business for more than 30 years, and have seen how people’s attitudes have changed over the years. Brides now prefer going to salons where they are pampered and get exclusive treatment.”
Becoming popular in the west
The increasing use of henna in the West has also led to the tradition spreading, being adapted and developing into alternative roles. Shakiba, a London-based henna artist claims that, “Mehndi isn’t just a trend in the East anymore; it is increasingly getting recognition in UK, not just in Wembley or Southall but in Central London as well where tourists from all over the world come to my shop.” Its rise has been sudden within the last 20 years or so, going from relatively unknown to far more widely recognised, with many more artists learning how to apply it. It has quickly become an alternative to tattoos, where it enjoys the advantages of being applied painlessly and safely and it produces striking images even for people who do not want something permanent.
Mehndi customs in different countries
Henna is most recognised as a decoration for brides in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. It has been argued that both the name and concept of an evening enjoyed by women before a wedding in the west, (the ‘hen night’), is derived from a ‘henna night’. There have long been claims that the darker a bride’s henna, the more she shall be loved. In India it is a common tradition for a bride to have her husband’s initials hidden in the detail of the artwork. Beenish, a henna artist who sits at Meena Bazar says, “Some brides tell us to inscribe their groom’s initials in their mehndi on their hands, so that they can tease them on their wedding night.”
In the Gulf regions including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, mehndi night is also a very common phenomenon. Brides decorate their hands and feet and mothers and grandmothers sing traditional songs making the night enjoyable and memorable. Mehndi is also used in other Middle Eastern celebrations, namely, births and christenings.
In Morocco, when a new home is purchased, the doors are decorated with mehndi art. It is done to bring prosperity and prevent evil from entering the house. In some communities of Kashmir and Bangladesh, the bridegroom’s hands too are adorned with mehndi designs for men.
Medicinal properties of mehndi
Henna is believed to possess medicinal value. It heals skin diseases, prevents hair from becoming thin and can also be turned into a beverage to get rid of head and stomach aches.
Mehndi flowers produce perfume, and the Egyptians are believed to have made oil and an ointment from them for increasing the suppleness of the limbs. Mehndi has been used to treat a number of ailments due to a brown substance of a resinoid fracture found in it. This has chemical properties which characterise tannins, and is therefore named hennotannic acid. It has been used both internally and locally to treat conditions including leprosy, smallpox, cancer of the colon, headaches and blood loss — especially during childbirth. It can be used for skin conditions such as eczema. The plant can also treat muscle contraction and fungal and bacterial infections.
However, mehndi is not merely a beauty product; it is an iconography of the Eastern heritage. It is a direct connection to a tradition stretching back centuries, through many cultures and countless generations. The art form is now practised globally and this gives new cultures the opportunity to discover this connection, as well as contribute new styles and traditions.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2011.