The art of mehndi (or mehandi) has been a long-standing tradition stemming from many ancient cultures dating back as far as about 5,000 years, but is most known today for its history in India. Today, it is still used in religious and ritualistic ceremonies in India, but has also gained appreciation in other countries as a beautiful art to be appreciated at any time.

Mehndi is the traditional art of adorning the hands and feet with a paste made from the finely ground leaves of the henna plant. The term refers to the powder and paste, and the design on the skin, as well as for religious and ritualistic ceremonies. Henna is a small shrub called hawsonia inermis, and is also know as Henne, Al-Khanna, Al-henna, Jamaica Mignonette, Mendee, Egyptian Privet, and Smooth Lawsonia. Henna grows in hot climates and is found in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Persia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and other North African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. The leaves, flowers, and twigs are ground into a fine powder, and then mixed with hot water. Various shades are obtainable by mixing with the leaves of other plants, such as indigo, tea, coffee, cloves, tamarind, lemon, sugar, and various oils are also used to enhance the colour and longevity of design.

There is some speculation as to the first origin of the use of henna. What is known for sure is that henna has been used as a cosmetic, as well as for its supposed healing properties for at least 5000 years. Centuries of migration and cultural interaction make it difficult to determine where certain traditions began. There is some historical evidence to support that mehndi as an art form may have originated in ancient India. However, some sources claim that the Moguls took the use of henna to India in the 12th Century C.E., centuries after use in the Middle East and North Africa. There is evidence to support that the tradition of mehndi originated in North Africa and the Middle Eastern countries during ancient times. One of the earliest documentations of henna use comes from ancient Egypt, where it is known to have been used to stain the fingers and toes of the Pharaohs prior to mummification. It is possible that the similar use of henna in these areas arose independently and perhaps simultaneously, and this could account for the difficulty in pinpointing an exact birthplace of mehndi art.

The art varies from country to country, spanning different cultures and religious traditions, and making it possible to recognize distinctions in cultural style. There are three main traditions that can be recognized, aside from the modern use of henna as a trendy temporary tattoo. Generally, Arabic (Middle-eastern) mehndi features large, floral patterns on hands and feet, while Indian (Asian) mehndi uses fine line, lacy, floral and paisley patterns covering entire hands, forearms, feet and shins; and African mehndi art is large, and bold with geometrically patterned angles. African mehndi patterns usually use black henna while Asian and Middle Eastern mehndi is often reddish brown. It is also a common custom in many countries to step into the mehndi, or simply apply the paste without creating a pattern in order to cool, protect or treat the skin (sometimes referred to as a “henna-shoe").

While much of the tradition and symbolism around the use of mehndi has been lost over the generations, there are still some traditions, which are still followed by some. In many eastern places, henna is thought to hold special medicinal or even magical properties. It is used to help heal skin diseases, prevent thinning hair, and cool the skin to reduce swelling in hot climates. It is made into a beverage to heal headaches and stomach pain. Newly purchased homes in Morocco often have their doors painted with henna to wish for prosperity and chase away evil. Henna is used as a protection against the “evil eye”. The foreheads of bulls, milk cows, and horses are sometimes decorated with henna for their protection. Tombstones in graveyards are sometimes washed with henna to please the sprits. Henna is used in celebrations of betrothals, weddings, births, circumcisions, religious holidays (similarly for Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians and other religions) and National festivals. A bride whose family has little money wears her mehndi in place of ornate gold jewellery. It is said that when a bride has mehndi done for her wedding, the darker the design, the more her mother-in-law loves her. A good deeply coloured design is a sign of good luck for the marital couple. It is common for the names of the bride and groom to be hidden in the mehndi design; and the wedding night cannot commence until the groom has found the names. A bride is not expected to perform any housework until her wedding mehndi has faded. While much of the symbolism of mehndi designs are being lost some examples remain. The peacock, which is the national bird of India, the lotus flower, and an elephant with a raised trunk, which is a symbol of good luck, are all popular images.

The historical background
Red hand patterns ornamenting fertility shrine walls from 7000 BCE, at Catal Huyuk, may indicate that henna was used to celebrate women’s sexuality and fertility then just as is done now. The deities associated with those red hand patterns were the fertility goddess, the battlefield goddess, and the bull god. That religion was the precursor to the Bronze Age Middle Eastern religions, which included henna as part of their fertility goddess worship. Women’s henna traditions, therefore, may have since been continuously practiced for as long as 9000 years. The earliest civilizations with artifacts showing hennaed hands on fertility goddesses are the Ugaritics, Canaanites, Minoans, and Mycenaeans. Ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, Sumerians, and Egyptians also used henna, but for purposes other than celebrating women’s fertility.

The earliest written record of women’s bridal and fertility festival henna is the Ugaritic legend and epic poem, of Baal and Anath, from northwest Syria, about 2100 BCE. Anath was a goddess of fertility and battle. In this legend, brides ornamented their hands with henna before meeting their husbands, and Anath adorned her hands with henna before avenging Baal’s murder. Henna’s inclusion in this legend implies that henna was used by the Canaanite people, as a bridal tradition, and as a women’s celebration of life, for many centuries prior to 2100 BCE.

Many Minoan and Mycenaean statuettes from 1700 BCE to 900 BCE show goddesses similar to Anath, whose raised hands have henna-type markings. Their breasts and feet also show marks interpretable as henna stains. Images of Libyans from the same period have stained palms and soles. The sea-faring Canaanites spread their traditions, including their use of henna, across the Mediterranean to North Africa between 1700 and 600 BCE, and as far as Spain.

Numerous artifacts from Iraq, Palestine, Greece, Egypt, Crete and Rome from 1400 BCE to 1 CE show women with henna patterns on their hands. Henna’s use as a woman’s bridal and tribal adornment was then widespread in the eastern Mediterranean. It is mentioned in the Bible as “Camphire” in the Song of Solomon, and was used by the Canaanite women in pre-Biblical times. A 30 BCE Roman wall fresco, “The Aldobrandini Wedding”, shows a “Night of the Henna” celebration, including henna patterns on the mother’s hand. Henna was used in Palestine from the earliest historical period. Roman records describe Jewish and Gentile henna use in Jerusalem during the early Christian era. There is artifact evidence of early Christian use of henna in the eastern Mediterranean region and Egypt.

Henna was incorporated into the customs of Muslims in the 6th century CE. Henna traditions were long established in Arabia, and henna was used by Mohammed and all of his wives. As Islam expanded quickly into other countries, eastern Mediterranean henna traditions followed. Henna was grown and used in Spain, by Christians, Jews and Moors from the 9th century AD until 1567 when the Spanish Inquisition outlawed it. Muslims worldwide continue to celebrate the “Night of the Henna” and regard henna as a beautiful and suitable ornament for women to the present day.

Some of the most complex and elegant hennaes ever created were done between 900 to 1700 CE in the Islamic countries. Many miniature paintings and pottery pieces show elegantly patterned red and black henna during this period. Delicate and expressive henna patterns reached their peak in medieval Persia, incorporating calligraphy, multiple applications and varied colors. Persian henna artists achieved blacks, reds, browns, golds, oranges, even blue and green tints with additional herbs, spices and unusual techniques! Henna is still in use in all the Middle Eastern and North African countries, though in some areas henna fell out of favor in the 20th century as women sought to emulate European and American fashions.

The earliest artifacts showing henna in India are from about 400 CE, in the Ajanta caves. Hennaed hands and feet in the Aganta paintings appear equally on men, women, rich and poor, deities and demons. Henna was not specifically associated with brides or women’s fertility in early India, but was an auspicious and utilitarian cosmetic for all people. In early India, henna was applied by dipping palms and soles into a thick paste of crushed fresh leaves, creating a solid red stain without patterning. Middle Eastern henna was done by mixing dried powdered leaves into paste, then applying it with a stick. Therefore, though henna certainly was used from an early period in India, it was used differently than in the Middle East.

Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, Buddhist clerics, humans, and demons were depicted as having solid bright red palms and soles, stained either with henna or vermillion powder, in sculpture and wall paintings in Northern India, Nepal, Tibet, Ceylon and Burma, from 600 CE to 1300 CE. Hindu deities during this period were also depicted as having red palms and soles, continuing to the present day. Red has always been considered extremely auspicious and lucky in India.

After 1100 CE, women in Indian miniature paintings often have red tinted hands and feet, either from dip henna, lac or vermillion. In the early Mughal courts of India, Persian women with elaborate black henna patterns are depicted alongside Indian women with red-tinted, although unpatterned hands. In Hindu India prior to 1500 CE, red dip henna was preferred, and patterning remained very simple until after 1650 CE. By 1822, complex patterned henna was an established fashion tradition in Hindu India, part of the cosmetic array used by both wives and concubines to look their best.

By 1700, the bridal celebration of the “Night of the Henna” was a well-established part of Muslim India’s traditions, and married Muslim women in India frequently used henna for adornment, for luck, and to enhance sensuality. A portrait of Mumtaz Mahal has one of the earliest Indian patterned hennaes. Since 1822, patterned henna is seen frequently in Indian artifacts, though the henna is always represented as red, not black. Dip henna and simple patterns adorn most women portrayed in Indian art since 1800, as well as many Hindu deities. Henna patterning in Hindu India has become very complex and beautiful in the 20th century, and is used as part of the celebration of weddings and many holidays.