All About Mehndi
‘Mehndi’ (otherwise known as ‘henna’) is a paste used to decorate women’s hands and feet. It’s used on brides at weddings as well as at other festive ceremonies across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, as well as the Arab world. It comes from the leaves of a plant named ‘Lawsonia Inermis’, a flowering shrub which grows between 8-25 feet tall.
The custom of mehndi art symbolises the ‘outer and inner sun, awakening the inner light’.
Henna Leaves – About the Plant:
The shrub has many branches and makes for an excellent hedge (as small animals leave the leaves in peace!) The small tree has a very healthy life span of about 50 to 60 years.
Thanks for the original helpful photo of this henna shrub.
Henna – Where & How It’s Harvested:
The plant is native to tropical areas and grows in Western and Southern Asia, North Africa and north Australasia. It can survive in semi arid conditions as it doesn’t get too thirsty. In India, it’s cultivated as a dye crop for sale in the states of Punjab, Haryana, west Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. The plant can be propagated by seeds or stem-cuttings. The great thing is that it isn’t fussy as it can grow on any type of soil, from loam to clay loam. It also tolerates a bit of alakalinity (saltiness). The leaves of the henna plant provide the dye and the harvesting of leaves takes place after the 3rd year. Usually the plant is harvested twice a year, around April and October. The branches bearing leaves are dried in the shade before they are separated and powdered .
Thanks to whoever originally posted this informative close-up image of the henna leaves.
Henna – How it grows:
The plant loves heat. In fact, it’s happiest in high temperatures of 35 – 45 C (95 to 113F). The plant has periods of very quick growth. It can look sad, straggly and on the dry side when the leaves turn yellow and fall. But trimming produces new leaves, giving it a new lease of life. Place it in temperatures below 5 -7degrees C and it won’t survive.
Henna – How the plant turns into colour:
The active compound in the henna leaves is called ‘Lawsone’. It releases the colour from the henna leaves. But to stain the skin and get the best possible colour, fine henna leaf powder is turned into a paste. This is when the molecules are released.
The process above is similar to the indigo plant, where the leaves have been producing natural blue Indigo for centuries. This happens by soaking the leaves in water, fermenting them and turning the ‘glycoside indican’ in the leaves to ‘indigoten’ through oxidisation. In other words, both plants are converted into something you can use to decorate the body or fabrics. In our case, the colour in henna is used for body art such as mehndi!
Henna is easier to make than Indigo. Each culture has evolved different techniques to mixing the henna powder for the best extraction of colour. At a simple level, the powder can be mixed with water, lime or lemon juice and mild to strong tea extracts. The mix is then left to rest for upto 2 days for best results (zzzzz, I bet the bride could do with the same before her big day). Some add essential oils such as tea tree or lavender to improve the stain.
Henna – How the plant is applied:
Everyone applies mehndi in their own way. In India, the paste is applied with simple tools such as a stick or a simple paper cone, (a bit like a patisserie icing bag). In Morocco, a syringe is used, while in the West, henna body artists use an applicator with steel tips of various sizes. What’s great is that in the right hands, even a simple paper cone used with expertise can produce exquisite, intiricate and stunning designs. Mehndiyoyo.com brings some of these extraordinary creations to you.
Nowadays, it’s most common to use such ready-made mehndi cones to apply mehndi art. But in more rural areas, fresh henna is ground with added oil, resulting in much darker patterns.
Once the design is complete, the mehndi art is kept wet. Traditionally, a mixture of lime or lemon juice and sugar is applied with a small sawb of cotton. This is done with a patting motion. The mixture is topped up wherever the mehndi seems to be drying. This process not only helps draw out the colour, but it also enhances the staying power on the skin. You can brush this dried paste away after some time. If you’re after just a light stain, avoid the above sugar lemon dabs altogether.
Mehndi Art – Leaving to dry
That’s up to you. However mehndiyoyo.com is here to offer a little guidance. Firstly, don’t be surprised if you see that the first tones of the newly applied maehndi are orange. The design reaches a tone of dark reddish brown in the next 48 hours. To give you an idea, leaving the mehndi art between 45-90 mins, leads to a light browninsh tone. Leaving it between 5-24hrs heads towards a near black tone. So about 5-6 hrs seems to be a good lenghth of time. Depending on the quality of the paste, your design will last anywhere between 1 and 3 weeks, fading as time passes as a lovely memory of your celebration.
Mehndi Art – Tradition & history:
As you may know, mehndi art has a very rich history. It’s been linked with celebration and fertility for thousands of years. Patterns vary in complexity and are designed to bring luck (warding off any evil), encourage fertility and bring good energy.
In the Ugartic legend of Anath, a violent virgin war goddess who protected the earth, applies henna to her hands while preparing for war and in celebration of victory. Ugaritic texts also confirm the use of henna from the Bronze age (from about 2000BCE in the Coastal areas of Syria).
In pre-independent India (especially in Rajasthan), the practice of ‘Suttee’ was prevalent. This has to do with women climbing on the funeral pyre dressed in their bridal clothes and sacrifice themselves. This was because a life without their husband was thought to be unthinkable. They were celebrated as a Goddess and worshipped after their death. When their husbands went to war, the ‘Nai’ (the henna artist) was summoned to decorate their hands, either to celebrate the husbands’ safe return or in preparation for Suttee.
Mehndi art rituals are also associated with childbirth in various parts of India, such as the Valaikappu in Tamilnadu. Here, the hands of the mother-to-be are decorated with mehndi and adorned with bangles. This all takes place in the 7th month of pregnancy (by elder women and friends of the family). The idea is to invoke blessings on the mother and the unborn baby. The mother-to-be is decorated with scented sandals and sprinkled with rose water (sounds rather nice, no?) In Rajasthan, this is called ‘Athawansa’ and mehndi is done very elaborately. In all traditions, a coconut is placed in the lap of the mother-to-be. These ceremonies reinforce the social support the mother-to-be will receive upon the birth of the baby. Mehndi art is also a sweet reminder of the wedding ceremonies.
Thank you for this beautiful mehndi mehndi art pregnant belly image.
Mehndi in weddings:
In Indian wedding ceremonies, the mehndi art ceremony is one of the highlights of the celebration and ritual. This practice has been around from ancient times, (reportedly from about 700 AD). It’s a hugely important part of the wedding ceremony, especially in Central and Northern parts of India. It’s recently even been adopted in the South of India. The ceremony can be simple or lavish and is arranged by the bride’s family. Though meant mostly for women, nowadays, men also join the festivities, accompanied by music, dance and yummy food. In certain Hindu festivals, men are also decorated on their arms, chest, back and legs (women have mehandi designs usually applied to their hands, feet and occasionally the back of their shoulders or back).
Take a look at some of our favourite dulhan mehndi designs available on mehndiyoyo.com
When does mehndi happen?
The mehndi art ceremony officially marks the beginning of the wedding ceremonies and takes place a few days before the wedding.
The bride and her girlfriends gather together and a family member or henna artist applies henna meticulously to the bride’s hands and feet. The most elaborate mehndi art is saved for the bride-to-be, however the friends also enjoy the ritual. Expert mehndi artists are often booked months in advance. The bride has turmeric applied to her face , hands and feet by the relatives and most importantly her mother and mother in law-to-be . The ‘Nai’ then takes over and elaborate designs on the palms and hands and on the feet of the bride, where the designs will appear the clearest. The bride-to-be isn’t meant to leave her home after this until the wedding ceremonies.
The designs can be Arabic, Rajasthani or tattoo-style (depending on current trends and the competence of the ‘Nai’). The patterns may serve to ward off the evil eye, give off good energy or indicate the promise of fertility. The name or initials of the groom will be hidden in the mahendi pattern.
The intensity of colour achieved on the bride’s menhndi art is said to reflect the depth of love of the husband.
Alongside the bride, all the female members will get less elaborate mehndi designs done on their hands and feet, and some men will get a simple one done on one palm (just for a bit of good luck). In some states such as Rajasthan, the lucky groom will also get fantastic elaborate designs done.
Who practices the tradition:
Mehndi art is used in the Arab world as well and by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in India. Apart from weddings , Hindus will have mehndi adornments on festivals such as Karva Chauth, Vat Purnima, Diwali, Bhai Dooj and Teej, whereas Muslims will celebrate with mehndi on festivals such as Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha .
Apart from India , neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, and Bangladesh have elaborate menhndi art ceremonies as part of their wedding traditions . In Sri Lanka, only the Hindus use mehndi. Here is an example of some arabic designs.
What other things is henna used for?
Henna is also used for medicinal purposes, as well as to dye cloth, leather and hair (incl. animal fur!). Not bad for a plant, right? You can read more about henna’s other uses.
Mehndi – Did you know?
Did you know that mummies in Egypt have been found with stained hair and nails? In fact, it is thought that the henna plant itself originated from Egypt and was exported to India where is has been used since 700 AD. The exact origin seems to be unclear however, as other sources claim the origin of henna is India.
Mehndi Traditional Saying:
While the mehandi stain is still visible, you don’t have to do any of the housework (I’d like to think this can still be the case once it’s faded away!) Also, dark stains bring a happier marriage and an easy mother-in-law. Stain away ladies, that’s worth fighting for.
Allergies and things to look out for:
Ladies, beware that there are synthetic dyes out there called PPD. These darken the design but can cause severe allergic reactions so take care.
As this government website warns about cosmetics, you should avoid when henna at all costs if it’s made using any chemicals or you risk having an allergic reaction. You can read similar advice about allergic reactions caused by henna here.
In fact, to be on the safe side, make sure that your selected henna designer follows the useful public health advice on applying henna. Or you can just read more about it from an expert on the matter of black henna’s risks.
Other options to consider include something called ‘Alata’ (‘Mahur)’, which is a flower-based dye used in some areas of India and in Bengal.
I hope you enjoyed the above information. Now have a little peak at some of the gorgeous mehndi designs shared on mehndiyoyo.com. New to mehndi? You may want to check out some of our easier mehndi design ideas shared on the site.
Thanks to all our sources:
(Ref Rajendra Lodha. ‘Cultivation of henna in Rajasthan’)
(Ref Thomas Bechtold Mussak and Rita Mussak , in their ‘Handbook of Natural Colorants’)