Henna is created from a plant, Lawsonia inermis, also known as hina and henna. The flowering shrub likes to grow in hot, dry conditions and can usually be found in Northern Australia, Africa and Southern Asia, Pakistan and India. The fragrant flowers are often used in perfume while the pigment to create henna designs comes from the leaves which contain a pigment called lawsone. The leaves are dried and crushed into a very fine powder then mixed into a paste before use. The stain is so good that throughout history and still today henna is and has been used to dye hair, cosmetics, fabrics, fingernails and building art.
The history of henna dates back thousands of years for its ability to naturally cool the body. People used henna paste in the deserts to soak their hands and feet to act as a cooling method as it would draw the heat from the body through the nerve endings. When they realized that by doing this their skin was stained they then adopted the method of creating beautiful designs on the body and began use also for cosmetic purposes. This method dates back to Ancient Egypt, Africa, Arabia and India.
Henna is applied as a thick dark green or brown paste to the skin. it then dries and flakes off revealing a beautiful orange/red/brown stain on the top layers of the skin. It can take up to 3 days for the stain to darken and will last the longest usually on the palms or soles of the feet where the skin is the thickest. Depending on the person, skin and what they do a henna design will usually last 1-3 weeks before fading.
Over time the designs of henna application became more intricate and in the last 2ooo years or so henna art became a lot more symbolic and has become a sacred addition to many rituals and traditions. Often a symbol of the Goddess Lakshmi to bring wealth, luck and fortune.
The most common use of henna application in a ceremonial atmosphere today is a part of the Hindu wedding preparation. A Mendhi ceremony is often held the night before an Indian wedding to wish the bride an offering of good health, joy, prosperity and beauty going into her new marriage. This ceremonial night is usually just for the females. The bride will receive hours of beautiful henna application to her hands up to her elbows and her feet, sometimes up to her knees. The application still today utilises the natural healing effect of the plant to cool and contain the brides nerves, relieving any stress on the big day. Also some other members of the bridal party and family will receive smaller designs on their hands.
The darker the colour of the henna design is believed to represent a better marriage, more love from the groom and a more prosperous future together. The darker the henna, the longer it will also last and it is said that a new bride does not have to do house chores until her henna fades. This tradition is also taking off for new mothers that apply henna at childbirth, keeping them from housework and allowing time to bond with their new babies.
Another major traditional time to apply henna designs as a woman in India is during the Teej festivities. The Teej Festival takes place in July/August and celebrates not only monsoon season but is dedicated to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Women will apply delicate henna designs to match the beauty of the festival, which will see them worshiping, singing and dancing to gain blessings from the Goddess for the coming year. It is said here also the darker the stain of the designs the more love she will receive from her husband and mother in law.
Today the western world uses henna as a quick, pain free way to apply body art and stains, cosmetic alterations and of course it is used still for it's natural healing properties. I think though the beauty of the Hindu wedding application can not be beaten.