While Mehndi or Henna has been popular in the States for the last few years thanks to people like Demi Moore and Madonna, it began more then 5,000 years ago in the ancient cultures.
The earliest record of henna being used was in Egypt, where the fingers and toes of the Pharaohs were stained just before they were mummified. We know of Mehndi because of the cultures and traditions found in India and other Middle Eastern cultures.
You have seen Mehndi, the beautiful and intricate designs on the hands, feet, neck or arm. When this artwork has passed you by, it made you stop and take a second look. But where did it come from and why do people adorn their bodies with masterpieces that will simply fade away?
To understand why we first need to know that Henna or Mehndi is a tall plant that resembles a shrub and grows in dry, hot climates like the Sudan, North Africa, India, Pakistan and countries of the Middle East.
To get the dye, the leaves are taken and dried and then ground into powder. Usually this powder is turned into paste and then applied to the skin. At first, the color of the stain it leaves is orange in color. However, within 24 hours that stain will turn a reddish-brown.
It has been a long standing tradition to use Mehndi as a way to decorate the body. Indian, Buddhist and Hindu women would decorate the soles of their feet and the palms of their hands on a daily basis. We also know that widows would not wear the Mehndi as a sign of mourning.
There is a variation in the art of Mehndi from one country to the next. This variation depended on the culture, religious traditions and ceremonies. And, it is all these variations that helps us identify where the design originates from.
For the sake of clarity, there are three main traditions that are recognized, not including the current popular use for temporary henna tattoos. The first of those three traditions is Arabic Mehndi, coming form the Middle East. These patterns are usually large floral patterns that are done on the hands and feet.
The second of these traditions comes from India, known as Asian Mehndi. This tradition uses more fine line and lacey paisley or floral patterns. These patterns are used to cover entire hands, feet, shins and forearms.
Finally, our third tradition is what is known as African Mehndi. This Mehndi art is large and bold in design. Large geometrically patterned angles are used.
While some sites will tell you that African Mehndi uses black henna, you need to know that there is no such thing as „Black Henna.“ Genuine Henna is either reddish brown in color or orange.
The so called Black Henna used in Africa is really Indigo, but here in the states „Black“ Henna has been created by less then honest people adding black hair dye or black inks and possibly other „harmful“ ingredients.
Much of the tradition and symbolism that surrounds Mehndi has unfortunately been lost through the generations. There are some traditions though that are still used today.
Mehndi is used in the Eastern places because they believe in the magical and special medicinal properties it has. For example Mehndi is used to help heal skin diseases, cool the skin in hot climates, and prevent hair from thinning.
In Morocco, when a new home is purchased you will find Mehndi art on the doors. Basically, the doors are painted with Mehndi to bring the home prosperity and prevent evil from entering. Mehndi art is also used for celebrations of betrothals, circumcisions, births, and religious holidays and national festivals.
The art of Mehndi is not practiced in only one religion, but rather in multiple religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hindu and Jews.
It is also a custom in certain cultures that a bride whose family has little money, will wear Mehndi in place of the jewels. As tradition goes, it is said that the darker the Mehndi the bride wears the more her Mother in Law loves her.
A richly colored Mehndi design is a sign of good luck for the new couple. Another interesting fact about the art of Mehndi is that it is a common tradition to have the names of the bride and groom hidden in the Mehndi design and that in order for the wedding night to commence the groom must find his name.
The new bride is also not permitted to do any housework until the Mehndi art design has faded. Some of the popular designs for these occasions include the lotus flower, the peacock which is the national bird of India and an elephant with a raised trunk.
As you can see there is a rich tradition and significant meaning to the art of Mehndi. There is more to the design and the coloring then just eye catching beauty.
So the next time you think about having Mehndi art done, consider what it is you are trying to say or bring about. Enjoy the „magic“ of Mehndi.