History, Uses and Traditions

The history of henna use goes back at least 5000 years. It is said to have been used in ancient Egypt to colour the nails and hair of mummies. Henna flowers produce perfume, and the Egyptians are believed to have made an oil and an ointment from them for increasing the suppleness of the limbs.

In the 12th century, the Mughals (Moguls) introduced it into India, where it was most popular with the Rajputs ot Mewar (Udaipur) in Rajasthan, who mixed it with aromatic oils and applied it to the hands and feet to beautify them. From then on mehndi has been regarded as essential to auspicious occasions, particularly weddings. in the scorching heat of Arabia, mehndi was often used on the skin for its coolant properties.

Interlocking and ornate henna work is beautiful when done with precision and accuracy. Traditionally, such complex patterns were used in Persia to enchant and entrap the Evil Eye and thus protect the wearer from attack. Knots were believed to be capable of restraining evil, and knotted plants were metaphors for the will of God. Lovers made hennaed knots to bind them to each other when they had to separate.

Many theological references to mehndi exist throughout the world. Basically, anywhere that has a period of hot dry weather and a history of goddess worship has utilized henna. This widespread use makes it difficult to establish a date or country of origin for the use of henna and mehndi. Inscriptions place henna in use in Syria as early as 2100 BCE. Evidence exists dating henna’s use in the Greek islands from around 1700 BCE, the Egyptian Dynasties from 1500 BCE and the beautiful cave paintings in Ajanta, India from 400 BCE.

Uses for Henna

Industry
Henna has been used widely in the production of leather goods, and is used to decorate drum skins, general dying of leather and for coloring cloth. In ancient times it was used by the Persians to dye the hooves and manes of their horses.

Medicinal Purposes

The henna plant has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, and has been found by modern scientists to be antibacterial and antifungal.  Henna has been used both internally and locally to treat conditions including eczema, leprosy, smallpox, headaches and blood loss - especially during childbirth. It may also be applied to the skin to hasten the healing of cuts and scratches, to treat dry skin, and a variety of rashes including athletes foot and ringworm.

Henna is an effective cooling agent. It is for this reason that henna is applied to burns and scrapes and is often used to treat heat exhaustion and to bring down the fever of a sick person.

Henna provides a complete sunblock.  Try tanning with your mehndi - when the red color fades you will be left with a white pattern where your mehndi was.

Beautification

Mehndi has been used in beauty rituals and customs from time immemorial. It is the oldest documented cosmetic and widely used through the Middle and Far East. It is used for its moisturizing and sun protecting properties as well as a hair dye, and its ability to transform the skin with red patterns. It is believed that Cleopatra and Nefertiti used henna as well as Fatima, the Prophet Muhammed's daughter, and Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj Mahal was built.

Marriage
Henna’s main use is the adornment of the bride’s hands and feet before the marriage ceremony in Hindu and Muslim cultures. Traditional wedding mehndi can be incredibly dense, resembling lace gloves. It often covers the tops and palms of the hands extending up the arms, and the soles and tops of the feet extending up the legs. Bridal mehndi is a sign of status and celebration and is one of the first gifts from husband to wife.

Often symbols of fertility and love such as peacocks and hearts will be incorporated into the design.  The new couples initials are sometimes hidden among the patterns, and on the wedding night the groom will search the bride’s body for their initials.

Certain customs hold that when the new bride moves into her husband’s home she will do no housework while her mehndi is visible. Once the mehndi has faded she will begin to care for her new family.

The function of mehndi in wedding rituals extends far beyond beauty and socializing. It is associated with a girls entrance into womanhood at marriage. A relationship exists between mehndi, hymenal blood, and the menstrual cycle. This is due in part, to the color of the dye and its average duration of one week.

Traditionally, only married women practice this art. A woman will practice and use mehndi until the death of her husband, at which point it’s often given up entirely.