The story behind traditional Henna and its cultural origins

From celebratory events to stylish weddings, henna is a paragon of commemoration in many places around the world. Enticing our eyes with its elegant swirls and spirals – in recent years, Henna has taken popular culture by storm, adorning the hands and arms of celebrities and influencers alike.

Many people on social media have expressed their appreciation for the art, by posting photos and videos of designs done on their hands. However, despite the admiration we may feel for Henna, the rich history and significance behind the art are still a mystery to most.

The practice of henna- commonly known as mehndi in both Hindi and Urdu- is an art that has been around for over 5000 years. A New York-based Mehndi artist, Sharmin Samantha told Vogue that ‘the earliest signs of henna application appeared in Egyptian mummies, whose hair and nails were stained with the reddish-brown tones of henna’.

Derived from a flowering plant known as the henna tree, it has many uses such as that of a dye or paste. The dye is created by washing and drying the henna leaves, and later crushing it into a powder. Whilst the plant was initially used only for cooling purposes, the stain of the plant adorned on the surface of the skin led to the ideas of using it in a decorative manner. In turn, the plant is now used to dye hair, nails and skin, as well as clothes.

In countries such as India or Pakistan, to not have a bride adorned with mehndi is typically unheard of. As someone born in Pakistan, to me, mehndi holds high importance in weddings- it is the emblem of celebration. Upon glancing at someone’s hands covered in henna, my thoughts race to previous weddings and events I attended, where the corner of my eye would always inadvertently catch onto the exquisite designs decorated on a woman’s hand. Traditionally, henna is always done the night before a wedding, also known as Mehndi Ki Raat (mehndi night). It is a joyous night, brimming with laughter and anticipation, rich with music and games, and blooming with the tendrils of a new journey slowly coming to life. Henna is more than a design. It is a totem of hope. A symbol of a new start.

The significance of henna also lies in its unique fragrance. Diffusing an earthy, herbal smell, the scent of mehndi takes many back to warm, lively nights spent getting ready for the big wedding of their family or friends. The fragrance is almost reminiscent of a woodland aroma, evoking a feeling of deep relaxation and serenity, perfect for easing nerves before the day of a wedding. The smell of mehndi is entwined with the memory of celebration. Days of Eid and nights of weddings are infused with this familiar scent, like nostalgia knocking on our doors and greeting us with a warm embrace. A celebratory atmosphere comes hand in hand with the distinct fragrance mehndi exudes. It is truly the smell of happiness.

Henna’s cultural significance goes back thousands of years with many cultures also explore this art form differently. South Asian mehndi incorporates labyrinthine lines and paisley patterns. African henna combines geometric shapes and natural tokens, and Arabian henna includes simple yet graceful floral or vine ornamentation on the hands and feet. In some cultures, different patterns and colours also hold many meanings. In India, the darker a bride’s mehndi, the deeper her bond will be between her and her husband. Although it could be marked down as superstition, it is a myth that has stood the test of time and is still mentioned jokingly during the wedding season.

The various shapes and designs of henna speak of remarkable traditions of the past. Traditions rich with the memory of mehndi and how it was used to express art in a way that left a temporary mark on the body, but a permanent one in the hearts of those that hold culture close to their soul. It is a reminder that happiness can be found both in the new joys life gifts us, but also in the old joys that will always stay tucked within our memory, treasured for as long as we live.

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  • Iba Raza

    Iba is a third year Comparative Literature student at UCL. She is passionate about reading, writing, and researching health and beauty.

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