Mehndi is the traditional art of adorning the hands and feet with a paste made from the finely ground leaves of the henna plant.
Mehndi, refers to the powder and paste, and the design on the skin, as well as the party or ceremony. Henna is a small shrub, it grows in hot climates and is found in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Persia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and other North African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Henna is also thought of as a symbol of sacrifice. The leaves, flowers, and twigs are ground into a fine powder, then mixed with hot water. Various shades are obtainable by mixing with the leaves of other plants, such as indigo. Tea, coffee, cloves, tamarind, lemon, sugar, and various oils are also used to enhance the colour and longevity of design. On applying, Henna emits a smell which is often liked or disliked by many, especially men. Though there is no end to the creativity of designs that can be done.
The art varies from country to country, spanning different cultures and religious traditions, and making it possible to recognize distinctions in cultural style. There are three main traditions that can be recognized, aside from the modern use of henna as a trendy temporary tattoo. Generally, Arabic (Middle-eastern) mehndi features large, floral patterns on hands and feet, while Indian (Asian) mehndi uses fine line, lacy, floral and paisley patterns covering entire hands, forearms, feet and shins; and African mehndi art is large, and bold with geometrically patterned angles. African mehndi patterns usually use black henna while Asian and Middle Eastern mehndi is often reddish brown. It is also a common custom in many countries to step into the mehndi, or simply apply the paste without creating a pattern in order to cool, protect or treat the skin and also to treat and colour the hair.
Henna has been used as a cosmetic, as well as for its supposed healing properties for at least 5000 years. It has been found that mehndi as an art-form may have originated in ancient India. However, some sources claim that the use of henna was taken to India by the Moguls in the 12th Century C.E., centuries after use in the Middle East and North Africa. One of the earliest documentations of henna use comes from ancient Egypt, where it is known to have been used to stain the fingers and toes of the Pharaohs prior to mummification.
While much of the tradition and symbolism around the use of mehndi has been lost over the generations, there are still some traditions, which are still followed by some. In many eastern places, henna is thought to hold special medicinal or even magical properties. It is used to help heal skin diseases, prevent thinning hair, and cool the skin to reduce swelling in hot climates. It is made into a beverage to heal headaches and stomach pain. Newly purchased homes in Morocco often have their doors painted with henna to wish for prosperity and chase away evil. Henna is used as a protection against the "evil eye". The foreheads of bulls, milk cows, and horses are sometimes decorated with henna for their protection. Tombstones in graveyards are sometimes washed with henna to please the sprits. Many people even name their girl child Henna or Mehndi. Henna is used in celebrations of weddings, births, and other religious ceremonies and festivals. An Indian wedding ceremony is not complete till the brides mehndi ceremony is held. There are many superstitions regarding mehndi during a wedding. It is said that when a bride has mehndi done for her wedding, the darker the design, the more her mother-in-law loves her. A good deeply-coloured design is a sign of good luck for the marital couple. It is common for the names of the bride and groom to be hidden in the mehndi design; and the wedding night cannot commence until the groom has found the names. A bride is not expected to perform any housework until her wedding mehndi has faded.
Such is the history, traditions and superstitions behind the lovely designs created by Henna or Mehndi.