Since the Bronze Age, the tradition of using henna to adorn women’s bodies has been customary in the Mediterranean regions. The reference to decorating women with henna during marriage and fertility celebrations is found in several legends around the planet. The ancient correlation between women and henna as body art is the origin of the Night of the Henna, now celebrated worldwide by Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Zoroastrians by decorating the bride with henna to express their greatest joy. The word “Henna” comes from the Arabic name for Lawsonia inermis, pronounced Hinna. Henna produces a burgundy dye molecule, lawsone which is primarily concentrated in the petioles of its leaf. This molecule has an affinity for bonding with protein, and thus has been used to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather, silk and wool. Henna’s indigenous zone is the tropical savannah and from Africa to the western Pacific border. In the Indian subcontinent, it’s known by different words such as Mehendi in Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh whereas in South India, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, it is known by its Tamil name, “Marudhaani”. Henna has numerous conventional and commercial uses, the most common being as a dye for hair, skin and fingernails.
Flowers of Henna have been used to create perfume since ancient times. Henna is commercially cultivated in India, Pakistan, Morocco, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, and Bangladesh. In India, at Sojat, a town in Rajasthan, henna is cultivated in large scale with over 100 henna processors making it India’s largest “Mehendi” production city. Seventy percent of its produce is exported to all over the world. The body art of henna is made by applying henna paste to the skin. This paste is prepared by first drying henna leaves and milling them to powder and then mixed with lemon juice to a toothpaste consistency and kept aside for 6 hours. Oils such as tea tree, eucalyptus or lavender are added to improve its colour on the skin. In South India, fresh leaves of henna are ground instead of using the dried powder. Henna paste is applied with a one of many traditional tools, including resist techniques, shading techniques, and the modern cello wrap cone. Once applied to the skin, Lawsone molecules transfer from the henna paste into the outer layer of the skin. Though henna stains the skin within minutes, the longer the paste is left on the skin, the more lawsone will transfer. Henna paste will yield as much dye as the skin can absorb in less than eight hours. Henna tends to crack up and fall off the skin quickly, so often it is sealed down by dabbing a sugar & lemon mix over the dried paste. This also adds to the colour by increasing the intensity of the shade. When the dried paste is removed the stain will be orangish the colour but it darkens over next three days to a reddish brown. Steaming or warming the henna pattern too will darken the stain during the time the paste is still on the skin.
The mode of “Bridal Mehendi” in Pakistan, Libya and in Indian diasporas is increasing in intricacy and embellishment, with new enhancements in glitter, gilding, and fine-line work. Thousands of designs are drawn by henna artists according to the occasion and the demands of customers. In parts of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sudan, even the grooms are decorated with henna. In Rajasthan, grooms get designs that are often as elaborate as those for brides. Traditional as well as contemporary henna artists good money through this art. Even women who are discouraged from working outside their homes in some countries, find socially acceptable yet lucrative work doing henna. Morocco, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, as well as India have women with thriving henna businesses. Celebrations like Purim, Eid, Diwali, Karva Chauth, Nowruz, Mawlid, pregnancy, birthdays as well as weddings are incomplete without henna as part of the festivities. Whenever and wherever there is merriment, there is Henna!
~ by Arundhathi on October 30, 2009.