The Art of Henna

Filled with colorful designs and patterns that ripple across clothing and fabric, India’s streets and marketplaces are a feast for my eyes. It is the painted designs on hands and feet, however, that capture my attention. I ask one of the vendors at Manesh Market in Mumbai, about this beautiful body art. He directs me deeper into the market, where I soon find myself learning more about the ancient tradition of mehndi.

Mehndi is a tradition of body art that uses a natural, plant-based paste called henna to dye the skin. Henna paste is made by grinding the dried leaves of a sub-tropical tree, and it’ then mixed with lemon juice or another acidic liquid. This combination of ingredients creates a chemical reaction that darkens the dye the longer it’s exposed to oxygen.

Sometimes, this dye is applied during rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, with weddings being among the most important of all celebrations. Brides (and sometimes grooms) paint their skin with elaborate designs to symbolize beginning a new life: flower buds reflect new life; peacocks and paisley reflect beauty; and the sun reflects ever-lasting love and knowledge. Sometimes, the name of the groom will be painted into the designs. It’s said that the darker the mehndi becomes, the more a groom loves his new wife, but I have a feeling the deep brown color is derived from chemical processes!

Even though I’s not celebrating a festive occasion, I decide that I want to experience mehndi. The paste tickles a bit as it is applied by an artist over my hands and arms, but I am mesmerized by the beauty of each design and pattern. I am a little disappointed that these designs will have faded by the time I return home in a few weeks, but for now, I will enjoy this rich piece of Indian culture.