Mehndi // Henna, Then & Now - A Story of Ever-Evolving Tradition
Mehndi—a timeless art form that is just as magical as it sounds. More widely known to the rest of the world as Henna. Mendhi is essentially a dye made by crushing dried powder leaves of the Lawsonia inermis plant. Steeped in miles of ancient Vedic tradition and evolving into an exciting, fun art form for gathered women all over the world, Mehndi is one Indian Tradition that has survived and evolved with the peaks and valleys of time.
As young Indian-Americans, Mehndi was something we often shied away from. The Monday morning following a big, fat Indian wedding, it began—the stares, the laughs, the hushed whispers, the impolite pointing of fingers, and the infamous, “Why do you have marker stains on your hands?” At the time, we lacked the vocabulary (and quite frankly, the confidence) to truly comprehend and articulate the beauty, the liveliness, and the cultural pride of being adorned in Mehndi to others.
However, that would hardly be the case today. Today, we would openly and sincerely share what Mehndi is all about. We would rave about the use of Mehndi in Indian weddings—the glitz, the glamour, the comfort of familial tradition.
The nostalgic scent of the paste - the cool and ticklish touch of the henna cone as the artist decorates one’s hands with mesmerizing, detailed design with careful precision - the giggles and laughters of all the significant women in your life, elders, girlfriends and eager little daughters and nieces - it's an enchanting tradition we take great pride in honoring and carrying on today.
Keeping Old Traditions Alive
Mehndi nights are a colorful, decadent event coupled with Sangeet (music and dancing). The celebration occurs alongside loved ones as they shower the to-be-married couple with love and light—unique blessings that are incomparable to anything else. Mehndi Night is thrown prior to the wedding day. It's a day to relish in breathtaking dance performances by friends and family of the bride and groom, indulge in the most mouthwatering foods you can dream of and feast on the variety of designs on Hennaed Hands. Traditionally, the bride's henna is the most elaborate. She is adorned in intricate Mehndi patterns by the end of the night—palms, arms, legs, the whole nine yards. (Just imagine the dedication of sitting still for that long). Married couples reflect back on their Mehndi night with a sweet smile as they reminisce on unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime memories.
The whole night feels like a dream—the epitome of a pinch-me moment before the official pinch-me moment takes the reign.
A Touch of Today
In the same breath, we would laugh about the unverified superstitions taught to us by our elders that the deeper the stain of Mehndi on a bride’s palms, the deeper the love of their spouse.
We would ponder the significance of a groom locating his name or initials within the bride’s Mehndi before the end of the night.
We would enlighten others on the history of Mehndi—the way the cool paste was originally used as a remedy to rid brides of any lingering stresses and frazzled nerves prior to their wedding day.
We would educate others about the medicinal properties of Mehndi—the way the paste can be used to cure a headache or prevent hair loss.
We would show others the way Mehndi can be used as a magnificent hair dye that strengthens and rejuvenates hair in the same light.
Today, we would happily share our own experiences and stories excitedly with anyone who showed interest and invite them to experience the fun with us.
Today, we would tell a different story.
Noteworthy Bits: The Pocketbook Guide to Everything You Need to Know About Henna
Then: The Mughals first brought Mendhi to India in the late 15th century. It is the second part of a Vedic backed pre-wedding beautification & good luck ritual. The first is The Haldi (a ceremony in which the bride & groom are covered with turmeric paste). The Haldi is intended to Purify, while Mehndi is meant to Beautify.
Now: The evolution of henna in the world at large captures the essence of what we strive to do here each day. From ancient tradition to the pages of Vogue and the hands of Madonna, Mendhi has invoked the curiosity and excitement to many who have crossed its path. Today, it is a fun activity laced with tradition and significance for any group of gathered women. A beautiful art form that requires no special occasion for the wearing - although Indian brides all over the world carry on the tradition with a pre-wedding Mendhi event. But this bit of India has reached people of all cultures and backgrounds. From baby showers, engagements, birthdays to otherwise normal days starving for a bit of adventure and art, Mehndi has evolved far beyond its original uses and yet has managed to maintain the heart of the matter.
What Is It: Derived from the henna plant, the plant is crushed into a paste. It holds a strong, aromatic smell that can only be associated with mendhi. Today, the process has become commercialized and other ingredients are used in order to guarantee darker pigments.
Technique: Henna artists (or anyone!) apply intricate designs using a plastic cone, a paintbrush or a stick. One must hold still as the mud dries and begins to crack. Usually about 15-20 minutes. Once dried, a cotton ball of a lemon juice and white sugar concoction is applied over the henna in order to remoisten the henna. This creates a darker, more intense color. We were always told to avoid getting the mendhi wet with water and to go to sleep with our mendhi overnight and we excitedly obliged, eager to awake the next day and see how dark the color came out. However, some aren’t so patient and rinse their hands a few hours after application. This may simply result in a lighter color.
Design: Florals & paisely motifs. Curvy, intricate, elaborate. Vines. Thin lines. Today, the skys the limits as artists and cultures from around the world have influenced. Geometric patterns. Tattoos. Notice the designs hold that signature style native to India which can be found on traditional handmade rugs and block print designs.
Old Tradition: Back in the day, the groom’s relatives brought the henna cone and two divos (auspicious candles) to the bride before the wedding day. The guests throw coins over the bride's head as a symbol of fertility. (If you believe in that sort of thing). Next, her future mother-in-law, gifted the bride a piece of silk cloth (maybe these old wives’ were on to something….)
The bride would then walk along the unrolled piece of silk cloth in the direction of her future mother-in-law and kiss her hand (okay, maybe they weren’t).
Once the ritual was complete, celebrations began! A plethora of rich fruits, fine nuts, and delicious pastries were feasted upon and songs would be sung in hopes of making the bride cry which was of course considered good luck. The bride would then sit on a cushion as her future mother-in-law placed a gold coin in her hand as another sign of good fortune. And then, the henna painting began.
- The darker the color turns out, the deeper the love.
- The darker the color, the deeper the love between mother-in-law and bride.
- The longer the mendhi lasts, the more auspicious it is for the newlyweds.
- A good luck charm for fertility and women wanting to conceive.
- The groom’s name or initials are hidden within the bride's henna design. During the post-wedding ceremonies, the groom has to find his initials in the bride's hennaed hands. This was also meant to serve as an ice-breaker for the couple and establish some intimacy to two people who were often strangers on their wedding night.
We shake our head at some of these old superstitions and some we will keep with us.
That's the beauty of tradition - we can take what we like and change the rest. It's a living, fluid thing that changes as we do. However, we take comfort and joy in knowing that the heart and root of Mehndi... well, that's not going anywhere.
And we will continue to endlessly share the versatility and hidden beauty of Mehndi and of our culture. Generations upon generations will keep our traditions alive long after we’ve passed them down—until the end of time.
Mansi Shah @mansishah Mansi is a contributing writer here at the Laal Bungalow & author of "Moments," a collection of the moments that we experience throughout the course of our lives, along with reflections that are learned along the way.