Sapna Magazine Archives

The Archives 2004-2020

The 411 on Henna Art

Henna Art, known in the Indian subcontinent as Mehendhi, is a beautiful temporary body art form that has slowly been making its way around the world. Though it seems as if it is an exclusively South Asian art, the intricate history points to other more ancient origins. Sure, brides and girls love to decorate themselves with these detailed body stains for decorative purposes, however the original use of the henna plant was far different.

Up to 5000 years ago in mainland Africa, people working outside and tending to crops would suffer from the scorching sun. Their hands and body would get uncomfortable and hot while working, so they applied the crushed up henna plant leaf paste on their body. The plant has a cooling agent that keeps the body temperature lower as long as it stays on the skin. The first cosmetic use to henna was seen in Egypt a few hundred years later. Paintings in tombs depict intricate pictures on the hands of Egyptian Women. Henna was and still is used as a nail polish, hair conditioner, and dye for tresses and beards. It tints black hair to a burgundy wine shade, and dyes white hair a fiery orange hue.

Being used primarily in the Middle East and Africa for decorative and cooling purposes, there is little or no evidence that henna reached the Indian subcontinent before the twelfth century A.D. It came to India with the coming of the Mughals from Persia. It is at this point that women in paintings from India are seen with decorated hands and feet. It was a cheap way to wear unique and fancy jewelry. During the Mughal Empire, the designs typically used changed from the Arabic patterns (large and floral prints on the hands and feet) to a finer tubing of paisleys and minute details that cover the hands, arms, feet, and legs, especially to be used on brides.

In India, a bride is adorned with henna as a test of her patience. She cannot touch anything until it is completely dry. She must be fed and pampered. In an all girl’s celebration, the bride’s closest friends and relatives typically decorate her palms, arms, and feet. For as long as the henna stays on her body, she is treated like a princess and not allowed to work. In a cute and romantic ritual, the tattoo artist hides the initials or name of the groom somewhere in the midst of the vines and flowers. It is up to the new husband to find his name on the wedding night.

The beautiful patterns on the henna are traveling around the world at a high rate. Advertised by such celebrities as Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Mira Sorvina, and Drew Barrymore, the delicate art form has made a name for itself in the fashion industry. Nowadays, henna is seen as armbands, on the lower back, around the belly button, and just about anywhere else! There is a rich and detailed history to the beautiful tattooing art of henna that is widespread and only spreading further on the radar. The amazing art form started out in Africa, spread to the middle east, into India, and has now become a sexy international phenomenon. — MEHREEN MANSUR

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