The Art of Henna

The streets and marketplaces of India are a rainbow of colors, with fabric, spices, and food laying over tables and resting in baskets. As I walk through Manesh Market, I notice that some people have beautiful, brown designs painted over their hands and feet. I ask a vendor, about the designs, and he leads me to an area where men and women practice the ancient art form of Mehndi.

Kind of like a temporary tattoo, Mehndi is a type of art applied over the body, in which beautiful designs and symbols are painted on the hands and feet using a natural paste called henna. Henna comes from a plant that grows in the warm climates of India and surrounding countries, as well as in North Africa and parts of the Middle East. The leaves from this plant are dried, ground into a fine powder, and mixed with something acidic (like lemon juice) to create a paste. Mehndi artists use a small cone similar to the thin frosting tips used by cake makers to apply henna to the skin. The paste then dries and flakes off, leaving a stain that remains for several weeks.

Medndi is used during rites of passage from youth to adulthood. It is often an important part of Indian wedding customs. Before a wedding celebration, the bride will have her hands and feet painted with henna. Many of the designs have important meanings for her marriage. For example, peacock feathers symbolize beauty; flower buds represent new life; and the sun, moon, and stars mean long-lasting love.

Even though I’m not celebrating anything special, I decide that I want to try mehndi. I am mesmerized as I watch the mehndi artist paint creative designs over my arms, hands, and palms. As the paste dries, my skin feels much cooler in the Indian heat. I am excited for the henna to dry and flake off, leaving behind the beautiful patterns painted. I’m a little sad that my henna designs won’t last longer than a few weeks, but I intend to enjoy them as much as I can!