Aside from being an eternal topical balm for various conditions ranging from fingernail fungus to discomfort in diabetic feet, to UV-damaged hair and lice, henna and its benefits transcend practical function. In one particular example, henna application now exists as a meaningful Indian tradition to celebrate marriage and beautify women.
Courtesy of quzi ikram haq
Across several cultures in South Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, henna, or mehndi in Hindi, has been applied to the body for over 5,000 years, according to St. Thomas University (STU). For their antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects, henna leaves have since been “used for medicinal purposes and applied to the skin to treat such ailments as stomach aches, burns, headaches, and open wounds.”
Lawsonia inernmis, the plant from which henna powder is derived, grows in Asian and African frost-free scrublands. It likely found its way to the eastern Mediterranean through the dried plant trade. In the prehistoric town of Akrotiri in Santorini, Greece, there’s wall art of Minoan women with tinted hands and feet. “When it was discovered [that] the paste left a temporary stain on the skin—the plant contains lawsone, a reddish-orange dye that binds to the keratin present in skin—henna’s use progressed to decorative,” the researchers at STU explain, “as it was accessible to people of all socioeconomic levels.” This is arguably the start of South Asian bridal henna.
At a mehndi—that is, a preparty that takes place a few days before an Indian wedding—a professional henna artist draws onto the bride-to-be’s hands, forearms, feet and calves webs of flowers, paisleys, leaves, vines and maybe personally relevant symbols. Sometimes her fiancé’s name will be laced into the design for him to spot later on in a little romantic game.
Courtesy of hamid roshaan
Out of a fat cellophane cone, comparable to that of an icing bag, pasty wet henna strings out, thin like lotion and cool to the touch. Within hours, the dyestuff will dry to a crumbly crisp that once removed leaves behind a stained trace of the artist’s intricate handiwork. Today, henna artists are skilled enough to pipe out portrait designs.
Surrounded by friends and family, the women in the bride’s life, from sisters to attending guests, also adorn their hands with henna to share in her joy, to festively enhance their looks and to help welcome the big day.
How long does a henna stain last? It depends on the quality of the henna used and which area on the body it’s applied (palms of the hands and soles of the feet take to it the best). Instant henna, henna that immediately appears dark in colour once dried and washed off, and begins to peel away mere days after application, is not real but imitative. “Since real henna is so perishable and requires skill to prepare, companies that want to cash in on henna have taken some dangerous shortcuts,” warns the SARAHENNA website. “Their ‘imitation henna’ products contain industrial dyes and solvents which are shelf-stable. Unfortunately, these ingredients are toxic and can cause severe reactions.”
SARAHENNA is part of a rising number of western companies that offer products and services in line with the modern trend of natural body art, or henna “tattoos.” In a research article published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Pharmaceutical Sciences professors at Tshwane University of Technology state that “in the last fifteen years, henna body art has popularized, spreading globally from its areas of origin, and changing from being a traditional bridal and festival adornment to an exotic fashion accessory.”
Courtesy of shreesha bhat
Stains from high-quality, organic henna can last up to three weeks and get darker in the first several days after application. Applied intentionally before the wedding day to then fade away in the initial weeks of marriage, the course that henna takes on a bride’s hands and feet represents her journey from a past life of singlehood to new beginnings with a committed companion.
During mehndi ceremonies, invited guests may join in a line to greet and congratulate the engaged couple, who are traditionally seated against a floral or drape backdrop that then acts as a focal point of the party’s venue. Along with feeding them sweets or fruit, the guests might swipe some henna from a nearby bowl with their fingertips and smear the paste onto flat banknotes held out by the bride and groom in an open palm each—symbolic gestures to illustrate the giving and receiving of prosperity blessings.