Art and culture

A look at India’s henna tradition

PREYA SHAH describes how the biggest events in India are marked in henna

As a child, when henna patterns adorned my hands after a big celebration, I would cover them in plastic wrappings before taking a shower, in an attempt to keep the dye from fading. The designs were gorgeous, and it was always a rare celebration when I had a good excuse for mehndi, as this Indian tradition is called.

At any Indian festival or party that calls for dressing up – such as Hindu New Year and Diwali – you can expect to see mehndi on the arms of many. It’s created with a thick, reddish-brown paste that’s made from the henna plant. The paste is packaged into plastic cones, and by cutting the tip of cone off, it becomes a kind of henna pen to draw on the skin as the paste is squeezed out. In India you can go to a mehndi artist before a party or do it at home with store-bought cones of the paste. Living in Hong Kong, I have my artistically inclined sister apply it or just draw it on myself – it’s easier than it looks.

Usually drawn on the palms and feet, where the contrast of the dark colour is most visible, the paste is left to dry, often overnight to get the deepest colour possible, then scraped off. It lasts about two to four weeks depending on how often you wash or scrub the area.

The tradition is most significant at weddings, with a ceremony before the nuptials just for mehndi. Close friends and family of the bride gather together to get their hands painted (the bride also has her feet and legs done), and it’s a big party with singing and dancing. Because mehndi is more of a ritual for females, you get the heartwarming sight of male family members milling about and helping to feed their sisters while the henna on their palms dries.

The belief among older generations is that the deeper the colour of the henna, the better the bride’s life in marriage, whether it’s how much her husband loves her or how well her mother-in-law treats her. Often, henna artists are asked to hide the groom’s name in the bride’s arm-length maze of patterns for him to look for on their wedding night. The rule: the pair cannot consummate their marriage until the groom has found his name. I’ve noticed that usually the wedding guests enjoy this search more than the groom – just a tiny way the festivities are kept lively at India’s famously raucous weddings.


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