Mehndi describes temporary tattoos worn by ladies. The art has been around for centuries but does not belong to any particular caste, culture or creed. It is found throughout ancient civilisations. Egyptian Mummies from five thousand years ago have been found with traces of henna on their hands and nails. The women of the Lower Nile would used henna to colour their skin, nails and hair in the name of beauty and at one time it was considered bad mannered for women to not sport reddish stained nails.
The art of Mehndi was thought to have been introduced to India in the twelfth century when the Mongol hordes invaded. The tattoos were painted on the body (usually the hands and feet) from crushed leaves of the henna plant. Henna as a dye has been used for thousands of years in India and Africa and the word Mehndi means crushed henna. Body painting represents a spiritual and therapeutic experience. Designs vary from culture to culture, with Indians for example finely drawn floral and paisley patterns; Arabic designs featured large floral motifs on the hands and feet; and African designs included bold geometric shapes. All have their meaning steeped in mysticism of their culture. In India the upper body from the navel is considered holy.
Feet mehndi became popular with Indian and Pakistani women who could not afford jewellery for their feet. They enhanced their feet with anklets and toe rings. Mehndi was used at the time of weddings. Painting the bride is an essential part of the preparations. These conventions have not changed for centuries. The husband to be, usually supplies the henna and after the couple is anointed the groom leaves to let the women get on with mehndi. In the Punjab the groom to be will leave his handprint in henna on the wall as a symbol of him becoming a man. Many families preserve this for as long as possible. Many superstitions prevail and mehndi was taken very seriously indeed.
Many sociologists believe the origins of body art was to protect the innocent from demonic possession. Spirits were thought to enter the body through orifices and hence around the eyes, feet and hands are sites which were commonly painted. This was extended to other parts of the body not covered by clothing. In the Hindu religion, women decorated their hands and feet as they prayed for long life for their husbands. High rainfall in south and eastern India meant henna was not able to grow, instead they used a red ink called alta, to sketch simple designs. In Morocco, henna parties related back to the harem days where women would lounge around often naked gossiping and eating. Henna parties could last up to three days. Traditional dancers wore mehndi on the palms of their hands to allow the audience to see the movements of the dance. This helped the dancer concentrate and the patterns were intended to attract male attention.
It is regarded as a blessing and thought to bring happiness and wealth. Henna painted patterns were also thought to provide protection to the body during periods of stress such as menstruation, or pregnancy. Women's hands and feet were also painted in Mehndi after death to promote happiness in the next life. The soles of the feet are regarded as a point of holy contact and where the human being and earth meet. Most mehndi designs in North Africa were confined to the hands and feet to accentuate their elegant shape. One simple reason why the custom may have started is Henna is a natural astringent and, as was the custom, in ancient times when the feet were hot people used to henna paste foot baths to cool down. It was soon discovered if a circle of the palm of the hand was painted with henna the palm stayed cool. The custom to paint a circle on the palm was soon established and the addition of other design followed.
Nowadays it is very trendy to sport henna mehndi and many models and actresses in the public eye continue to do so. The act of painting is extremely restful and maybe one attraction for women who have time to visit the mehndi salon. Living in the Chemical Age another more concerning reason for the renaissance of this ancient custom is the number of women now using the tattoos to cover needle track marks on their hands and feet.
Henna was used by the ancients to treat foot ailments such as corns, blisters, athlete’s foot and minor cuts.