What we call henna is actually the paste applied during a session of mehndi. Mehndi has been practiced for many thousands of years in Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, and India. These regions have several things in common; one of which is the heat. Because they lived in such hot areas, the desert people first used henna as a cooling agent for their bodies. A paste of water and henna was used in which to soak palms and soles of the feet which gave a cooling sensation to their bodies, like an ancient air conditioner. When the henna was rinsed, it was noticed that patterns of stain were left on the skin’s surface, and henna became used in ornamental techniques. Egypt, too, used henna designs to decorate their bodies, and it’s even said that Cleopatra was a wearer of decorative henna. Mehndi was also popular because it could be used by rich and poor alike; the poverty-stricken could not necessarily afford jewellery with which to adorn themselves, but they could be equally decorated with henna stain.
Henna itself is a flowering plant and comes from the Arabic word “hinna”. This plant can grow to 15 feet tall and thrives in tropical climates. The flowers are very fragrant, and it grows better in dry soil. The hotter the temperatures in which the plant grows, the more dye it will contain. The dye made from this plant can stain skin, hair, fingernails, and some fabrics as well including leather, wool, and silk. It can range in colour from light red/orange to almost black, depending on both the quality of the dye and also the ability of the person’s skin to absorb it.
The uses for henna are many, but traditionally mehndi was reserved for special occasions like weddings, birthdays and holidays. During Mehndi night, the bride, along with her family and friends get together for a night of games, music and dance and extensive henna patterns on hands and feet. Sometimes these patterns reach right up to the elbows and knees. Often the bride’s henna patterns are done by multiple people and it can take hours to complete. Most of the guests receive smaller and less intricate designs on the backs of their hands. It’s said that for as long as the henna stains were visible on the bridge, she was excluded from doing any form of housework. It was also thought that the darker the stain, the happier the marriage and the friendlier the mother in law would be.
Today most brides have their henna completed before the arrival of Mehndi night so that they aren’t missing out on the fun and activities. This also usually means that the henna has stained dark by the time the wedding day rolls around.
Henna has a variety of other uses as well, it’s a more temporary tattoo for those who want a sneak peek, and it is used in cosmetic treatments, has medicinal uses, and is used as a connection to ancient practices.