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Mehndi - Culture Yesterday Fashion Today

There is something mesmerizing about mehndi and it’s no wonder that the ancient form of hand and feet painting has captivated many in the West. It’s in the intricate designs that take hours to create, the deep crimson color which shines clearly on the skin, the earthy aroma that fills the air …see for yourself.

Fashion is a funny thing. It allows an age-old tradition to suddenly become trendy and hip. Such is the case for the recent craze that has colored the West in the form of mehndi, more popularly known as henna. It’s cool, it’s ethnic, it’s hip. The demand for Mehndi supplies and do-it-yourselfkits is coming from all corners of the globe, including the U.S., Canada and countries all over Europe. There is even a Henna Page Discussion Forum on the Internet, where curious minds can ask questions and share stories about the art.

Intrigued by the creation of beautiful designs on the body, henna is being used by women worldwide as a mode of self-expression. But tell a person from the Indian sub-continent that mehndi is hip and they will look at you with bewilderment, because the art has been a part of their culture for centuries. More than just attractive designs, the use of mehndi is intimately connected to the tradition and culture of India.

Actually, the first tracings of henna were found in North Africa, on the hands of Egyptian mummies, dating back to the year 5000 B.C. It was believed that applying henna to the hands and feet would ward off evil. In India, the use of henna has its beginnings in the northern part of the country, during the 12th century when it was introduced by the Mughal rulers.

Mehndi became most familiar when Rajasthani women started using it as a symbol of art and design. Similar to the tradition of ceremonial floor painting in Rajasthan, known as mandana, mehndi uses motifs from ancient history, including the folk tales and mythology of India. Numerous folk songs and proverbs also exist about mehndi.

As a symbol of prosperity and good fortune, mehndi continues to play a major role in modern Indian society, particularly during important occasions like weddings. Even today, a special day is allotted in an Indian marriage for the application of henna on the bride, as well as family members and friends. It is yet another example of how modern Indian society has carried on an ancient popular tradition. But mehndi is not exclusive to weddings, in fact, it is used on numerous occasions, like Holi, Diwali, Rakshabandhan, Teej and Nagpanchami.

The designs originate from the practices followed on these occasions and represent specific objects, dresses, floral designs, leaves, flowers and birds associated with the festival. Popular designs include the scorpion, a symbol of love and romance in Rajasthan, as well as the peacock, the lotus flower and the fish.

Mehndi has a special role during Karva Chauth, celebrated mostly in North India in the month of October. On this occasion, women take the day off, apply mehndi, dress in their wedding clothes and fast for the well-being of their husbands until they see the moon at night. Although the art is used primarily for decoration today, the use of mehndi is expressive of a distinct culture and bond that is created between women on such occasions. Different emotions and characteristics of their lives can be seen in the art work and the designs themselves reveal many sublime aspects of women’s culture.

No doubt, the henna craze in the West will die out in due course, just as all fads do. But in India, the art will remain a part of the cultural tradition that has thrived in the country for centuries.


Henna is made from the leaves of the shrub for which it is named after. The red dye is extracted from the leaves and twigs of the henna shrub, found in not climate regions of the world like India, the Middle East and North Africa. The shrub is then ground into a powder, and mixed with hot water to from a dark green paste. In order to make intricate designs on the hands and feet, the paste is packed in a cone for easy decoration.

Although henna has been marketed in the West as a quick and easy way of “tattooing”, it is more accurately a form of staining or painting, since the dye is temporary and usually lasts 12 days. Application of henna is a serious art, taking hours to create exclusive designs. But experimentation with designs by a novice can also be extremely rewarding. Two distinct styles have emerged, one more geometrical, using straight lines and triangles, the other more creative, expressive and imaginative.

There are two varieties of mehndi, Hina Menhadi and Rajani. Of the two, Rajani is the variety know for its fragrance and shining bright color. The minute and more intricate designs require the use of this finer quality paste.

Apart from decoration, henna is used as a dye for hair and for healing sores. During the hot Indian summers, henna also acts as cooling agent when applied to the palm of the hands and the soles of the feet.