Read an Excerpt
The Timeless Art of Henna Painting
By Loretta Roome, Stephanie Rudloe
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 Loretta Roome
All rights reserved.
What Is Mehndi?
Mehndi is the word in Hindi used to describe henna, henna painting, and the resulting designs. Henna is a plant best known to us as a natural product used to color and condition the hair. Henna painting is an ancient cosmetic and healing art whereby the dried leaves of the henna plant are crushed into a powder, then made into a paste that is applied to the body to safely dye the skin. This is done in elaborate patterns and designs, traditionally on the hands and feet. The result is a kind of temporary tattoo, often reddish in color, which will last anywhere from several days to several weeks. The process is absolutely painless and in no way harmful to the skin. In fact, henna is said to condition the skin as it beautifies the body.
Mehndi is practiced in many parts of the world. From the deserts of North Africa to the villages of northern India, magnificent designs blossom and vanish upon the hands and feet of women as they have for thousands of years. Most commonly associated with romantic love and the ritual of marriage, henna designs are an integral part of bridal adornment in Hindu, Moslem, and Sephardic traditions.
Mehndi is an art form that traditionally has been practiced exclusively by women. In North Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or any Indian or Moslem community, you will find women who decorate themselves with henna. It is taught and practiced largely in the oral tradition, with recipes and patterns passed from one generation to the next. Henna designs may be used in the East to celebrate a special occasion, much the way one in the West might bake a cake or a favorite holiday food. It's that natural and that integral. But while mehndi retains an aura of festivity and well-being, it remains a sacred practice intended not just to beautify the body but to invite grace and good fortune into one's home, one's marriage, and one's family. It is a kind of talisman, a blessing upon the skin.
Henna painting in its purest form is largely improvisational and intuitive. Ancient symbols and motifs are subject to the whim and imagination of the artist, and great emphasis is put on the singularity and originality of each interpretation.
This art has always involved a marriage of the personal and the traditional, spreading slowly from one culture to another over thousands of years and taking on new meaning with each incarnation. Now we become a part of this evolution by discovering for ourselves what mehndi means today.
THE HENNA PLANT
Henna is the Persian name, now used in many languages, for a small flowering shrub (Lawsonia inermis) originally found in Australia and Asia and along the Mediterranean coasts of Africa. Also known as the mignonette tree or the Egyptian privet, it is grown as an ornamental in subtropical regions of the United States and has been naturalized in many countries throughout the world. The plant grows eight to ten feet high and is often found in India as a hedge surrounding gardens, yards, or homes. The flower of the henna plant is small, white, four petaled, and sweet smelling. Although henna grows in a tropical climate, it does well in greenhouses and is therefore available elsewhere.
There are many different kinds of henna plants. In northern India, there are two major varieties of henna. One has very large leaves and is known as hina menhadi or menhada. The other kind, known as rajani, has smaller, more fragrant leaves and is said to give a much brighter color.
Because there are so many dialects in India, there are also many words other than mehndi used to denote henna: menhadi, mehendi, mehedi, mendi, and in Sanskrit mendika, to name just a few.
THE MANY USES OF HENNA
Most people in the West know of henna because it is often used here to color hair. But in India and North Africa henna is of ancient repute for its medicinal properties and has long served many other functions. Used as an antiseptic and as an astringent, it is often applied to bruises and sprains, as well as boils, burns, and open wounds. It is used to treat ringworm and headaches, sweaty hands, burning feet, and athlete's foot. Because of the cooling effect it has on the skin, a ball of henna paste is placed in the hand of a fevered child in order to bring the temperature down. An extract derived from putting henna leaves in boiling water is used as a gargle to heal a sore throat, and taken internally to act as a tonic and to relieve stomach pains. The bark of the henna plant is used to treat jaundice, enlargement of the spleen, and various skin diseases.
As a cosmetic, henna is believed to condition and revitalize hair and skin and is often used to dye white hairs a darker color. It is said to kill lice and to prevent hair loss. It is also used as a deodorant, since its cooling effect prevents perspiration.
Aside from its cosmetic or medicinal functions, henna has long been used to dye leather and cloth, as well as the hooves and manes of horses. (One theory concerning the origins of mehndi in India links the arrival of henna with that of the Persian horses in the year 712.) Ceremonial markings with henna on walls, animals, and idols are also common.
ORIGINS OF MEHNDI
Mehndi dates back to time immemorial. The practice is so ancient, with mythological origins in so many cultures, that where and when it actually began is difficult to determine.
The earliest evidence of the cosmetic use of henna is from ancient Egypt. It was common practice among the Egyptians to dye their fingernails a reddish hue with henna, and it was considered ill-mannered not to do so. Traces of henna have been found on the hands of Egyptian mummies up to five thousand years old.
There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the henna plant was a gift from Egypt to India. Mehndi has been practiced in India for many centuries, as can be seen in the cave paintings of Ajanta and Allora, wherein a reclining princess is surrounded by women who paint her hands and feet with elaborate henna designs.
Henna is also believed to have been a popular cosmetic among the Hebrews and is often considered to be the substance referred to as camphire in the Bible.
Moslems have also used henna for many centuries. The prophet Mohammed used henna to dye his beard — a fashion adopted by the caliphs. Although staining of hands and feet with henna is also popular among Moslem women, it may have only been adopted into their tradition during the Mogul Era, when thousands of Hindus converted to Islam. Perhaps it was the strong presence of Islamic tradition in the Middle East and in northern Africa that helped facilitate the spread of henna painting all the way to Morocco, where even today it is as much a part of cultural ritual and ceremony as it is in India.
HENNA AND MYTH
There is no word for myth in the Indian vocabulary. The terms divya-katha (divine story) or purakatha (ancient tale) are used interchangeably. There is no sharp division between the notions of myth and reality as there is in the West.
The role of henna painting in the divya-katha involves Lord Shiva, the god of destruction and the most powerful of the Hindu deities. According to the tale, his consort, Parvati, would decorate herself with henna in order to please him and win his favor. He responded to her charms and, being a very difficult husband to please, earned mehndi the association of irresistible sensual allure and marital prosperity. This may also be the reason that mehndi is thought to placate the gods and ingratiate the adorned woman, protecting her and her family from misfortune.
Mehndi is so much more than a dye upon the skin. Perhaps this myth is at the root of its history, as it reveals the true functions of mehndi: to entice, to protect and to celebrate. But why henna, even for the goddess Parvati?
Mohamed Elmarrouf, native to Morocco and an authority on its culture and traditions, would often say, "This is a magical plant," and truly this is no exaggeration. Henna is a plant with transformative powers. With its tiny fragrant flowers and green leaves, imagine what a miracle it must have seemed to the ancients for these average-looking leaves to give forth a red dye (and so potent a dye at that) and to have healing and cooling properties as well. It's no wonder that henna is used to honor and bless one of the most miraculous of human transformations — the metamorphosis of man and woman into husband and wife.
Despite the variety of cultures that practice the art of henna painting, its primary use in each one remains the same, and that is to decorate the hands and feet of the bride (and sometimes the groom) for the wedding ceremony.
One theory regarding the origin of henna painting as a ritual practice links it to the defloration of the bride and the appearance of hymeneal blood. This connection becomes less abstract when one considers the color of the henna and the duration of its stain in relation to the menstrual cycle. Another link can be found in the poetry and folklore of India, where mehndi is often referred to as love juice.
Mehndi marks a samskara, or rite of passage, in a woman's life. In classical Indian tradition, there is no formal ceremony at the time of puberty to celebrate the young girl's coming of age. This time usually coincides with the celebration of marriage. Mehndi is therefore associated with the sexual initiation into womanhood, as well as the union of husband and wife.
The essence of this ritual is transformation. The girl who becomes a bride stands at the threshold of another existence. The joining together of the man and the woman in wedlock "encapsulates the creative activity which spawned the universe," as Richard Kurin points out in Aditi, The Living Arts of India. When a girl is initiated into womanhood through marriage, the realm of the sexual unfolds before her, as does the medium of henna painting. Like lovemaking, this becomes part of her vocabulary of expression. It will be shared at every celebration or festivity. She will explore it for the rest of her life, unless she is widowed, in which case she will usually abandon the art.
THE ART OF MEHNDI
In order to understand the art of mehndi, it is important to understand the role of bodily adornment in the places where this art form is practiced. For at least five thousand years, the people of India have devoted inexhaustible creativity and energy to the invention of ornamentation and designs that celebrate the human form through the medium of adornment. This is a spiritual endeavor, and in the words of author Oppi Untract, "By adorning the visible, material body, they also seek to satisfy a universal longing for the embellishment of its intangible counterpart: the human spirit."
In India, there is a special term (shringar) that is used to describe the beauty of a woman's creativity. The concept of shringar is a particularly lovely one. A woman displays her shringar in the act of creative expression. She may do it with a gesture or in a great work of art. She may reveal it in the way that she adorns herself or another. Shringar is the power of beauty beneath the surface, and mehndi is one of the many ways that such beauty is made manifest.
The Solah Sringar mentions mehndi as one of the sixteen adornments of a woman, though mehndi is also included in the Kama Sutra as one of the sixty-four arts for women.
Adornment in India is usually motivated by religious beliefs and has none of the stigma of vanity and materialism that it has in the West. It is associated with transformation and transcendence. Ceremonial painting is considered sacred work, and beautification a form of worship.
THE INVISIBLE AND THE UNSPOKEN
Mehndi is a language. It is not just a beautiful art form. It asks the woman to have a dialogue with the universe, and it provides the words by which to have that dialogue.
In Morocco, animism — the belief that all objects and living beings possess a soul — figures greatly in the practice of any and every craft and art form. Beyond this notion of soul is the idea that certain objects and animals contain mystical power and positive energy. These magical properties are referred to as baraka.
The concept of baraka is key in attempting to understand the role of henna painting in Moroccan society. Belief in the existence of baraka makes every moment and mundane task an opportunity for spiritual meditation. Simple acts of day-to-day life — cooking, weaving, or cleaning — become a form of worship, prayer, or what some might consider magic.
All things contain baraka, but in varying degrees. The henna plant was said to be the prophet Mohammed's favorite flower and as a result is believed to have much baraka. It is therefore respected as part of Islamic tradition and is used by the Moslem people for blessings, protection, and purification.
Similarly, the Hindus believe that Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, dwells in henna designs. A Hindu woman will paint her hands with henna to feel Lakshmi's presence and earn her favor, but this can happen only if she is worthy. If the woman is not worthy or shows no respect for the customs that she has learned, it is taken as an affront to the goddess, and is thought to have serious consequences.
HENNA AS ORACLE
The tradition of henna painting is supported as much by superstition as by celebration. In the words of André Malraux, "All art is a revolt against man's fate," and for centuries women have tried to predict and influence their futures through the medium of mehndi. The very word mehndi originally meant religious guide.
One of the most common superstitions about mehndi has to do with the color of the henna on a bride's hands. If the color is deep and red, it is said that the love between the husband and wife will be strong and long-lasting. Henna is often the first gift from the bridegroom to the bride, and it is therefore thought that the color speaks of the love he will feel for her.
There are many ways in which men and women use henna as an oracle. Sometimes a dot of henna will be put on the forehead to determine the fortune of the man or woman: if it stains, it is thought to signal good luck.
HENNA FOR PROTECTION
Although henna's use as a divining vehicle is not to be minimized, its more popular function is the attempt to influence the events of the future.
Women in every country practicing henna painting offer their designs to the spirits, gods, or goddesses in an effort to appease them and win their favor.
In Morocco there is a very clear understanding that symbols of protection are "the only action a human can take in the face of mektoub (destiny), the determining force behind every individual's life." Often henna is used to guard against misfortune. It is used for its magical powers and in some ways is practiced in the spirit of witchcraft. Different patterns and depths of color of the henna are thought to please the various spirits (djoun or djun). A woman will often have a henna party in order to placate a spirit or to make a particular request. For instance, if her child is sick, she might promise to have a henna party to honor a particular spirit who she believes could answer her needs and heal her child. Whatever the nature of her request, if she fails to follow through with her promise, it is believed that great misfortune could befall her.
Such practices may be dismissed as purely superstitious by the nonbeliever, though perhaps it would be wise to consider their deeper significance. After all, despite the great advances of technology and all the comfort and protection it affords us, man still remains defenseless before the whim of fate. Ultimately, we know nothing more than our prehistoric ancestors about why we are alive on this planet, and though we effectively distract ourselves from the inevitability of death, our lives lead us forward into the unknown.
Contemplating mehndi's traditions may help deepen an awareness of our relationship to life's fundamental mysteries. The traditional use of henna is similar to prayer, and, whether it reveals a regret, a request, a fear, or a superstition, it admits to the presence of forces beyond our comprehension — forces infinitely greater than ourselves.CHAPTER 2
Mehndi Designs and What They Mean
Mehndi is a secret language — a language of symbol. Though meanings of specific signs and patterns may vary from culture to culture or even from person to person, the use of symbols is universal. Symbols are the language of the unconscious and of the ancients.
Excerpted from Mehndi by Loretta Roome, Stephanie Rudloe. Copyright © 1998 Loretta Roome. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.