Meaning and Symbology of Mehndi (Henna Art)
Mehndi is basically the application of Henna plant extract as a temporary tattoo to decorate the skin in India, as well as in several Asian countries.
Apparently, this custom originated in India, in the desert areas of Rajasthan, Punjab, and Gujarat. They say that the people who lived in the Thar desert covered their hands and feet with a paste made with henna leaves. They observed that as long as the color remained on the skin, their body temperature remained low, helping them cope with the relentless heat. With the passage of time, the ladies began to experiment by drawing a point in the center with small points around. This small innovation gave way to the complexity of current designs.
However, the women of the Thar were not the only ones who painted their hands. It is believed that henna tattoo originated in the Middle East, probably in Egypt. There is archaeological evidence of mummies 5,000 years old, whose toenails are covered with henna. For the Egyptians, Henna was used for medicinal purposes, as a treatment for inflammation and fungal infections, as an astringent to stop diarrhea or as a cure for snake and scorpion bites. Henna was also part of a funeral ritual to prepare the body on his journey to eternity, where his application supposedly facilitated his journey.
Mughals brought henna to India
Muslim societies also used henna medicinally. It is believed that its application played an important role in the traditional practices of the prophets, such as applying it to the hair to relieve headaches or over the body to prevent body odors. In several “hadiths” (oral traditions) of Islam, the use of henna as a remedy or dye is mentioned. The Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) used it to dye his beard and his followers adopted that practice. The Mughals brought henna to India in the 12th century.
In ancient times, the Barber’s wife was the one who applied the henna to the ladies, since henna artists were originally from the “Nai” caste, the barbers’ caste. The paintings of the time show women with henna on their hands and feet.
While the word “henna” is derived from the Arabic word for the plant “hinna”, most South Asians become more familiar with its synonym: the word “mehndi”.
However, those are not the only names for this reddish-brown paste, in Kerala it is known as “mylanchi”. In Konkani it is called “meti”. The Tamils call henna “mayilainandi” or “marudhaani.” In fact, there are more than 60 different names for henna in 43 languages.
Mehndi is a popular art that is traditionally applied to Hindu brides before the wedding ceremony and in some cases replaced the jewelry in low-income families who could not afford the cost of traditional garments, so sometimes Designs emulated bracelets and rings.
The celebration of weddings in India generally lasts several days, as several previous events or functions are held. Among them is the Mehndi Rat ceremony which is one of the most important. It is a fun ritual that marks the initiation of women into their new life as married women. The guests attend the house of the groom, or on the other hand, of the bride, where professionals who apply tattoos to all the guests are hired. These tattoos are not as elaborate as the bride’s, nor do they compete with their beauty. In some areas of India, the groom is also painted with henna.
There are other myths around this tattoo. The most popular belief is that the deeper the color, the stronger the link between the bride and her mother-in-law will be. When henna is in his hands, the bride “does not have to do any housework and will be spoiled and pampered,” especially in cases where the bride is going to live at the house of the groom’s parents after marriage. Another popular tradition is to “hide” among the designs, the initials of the groom. “If the groom does not get them, he must give a prize to the bride and it is a sign that the bride will be the most dominant person among the couple”.