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The Allure of Mehndi

by Shoi

Born and raised in Malaysia, I've been exposed to her rich and diverse cultures since childhood — Many colorful traditions and customs from the Malays, Chinese and Indians have, in slow steady trickles, permeated the fabric of my life.

The downside to all this is that I've inadvertently come to take many of these good things for granted — at least, fortunately, until some chance sight, story or opportunity makes me see them afresh and with renewed appreciation.

Such an opportunity presented itself during the recent Diwali celebrations (a major Hindu festival). Street vendors with their tall pyramids of Indian delicacies remind me how much I love those incredibly yummy, syrupy sweet ladoos.

But the thing that captivated me the most, were henna artists painting exotic designs on hands, feet, and other body parts — They revived my fascination for the exquisite art and custom of mehndi...

Mehndi... ancient art of body painting

Mehndi... ancient art of body painting

The art and tradition of Mehndi

Mehndi is an ancient art of body painting — popularly believed to have originated in India.

This centuries old ritual and art form is considered good luck in India, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

Traditionally, mehndi is a ritual for women — preparing them for special ceremonies like weddings, or to celebrate the birth of a child.

To this day, no Indian wedding is considered complete without mehndi — In fact, some hold the Mehndi Ceremony so sacred that unless the mother-in-law has applied the first dot of mehndi to the bride's hand (a symbolic blessing), the painting cannot go ahead!

In the West, mehndi decorations became fashionable in the late 1990s — they are sometimes called "henna tattoos".

The henna plant

( Lawsonia Inermis )

Henna... the magic ingredient

Mehndi is a process that involves the application of henna to create elaborate, yet non-permanent, patterns on various parts of the body.

Mehndi is the hindu term that embraces all aspects of the art — From the substance (mehndi powder or paste), to the act of painting on the skin, and the resulting design and color.

The henna used for mehndi comes from a bush called Lawsonia Inermis. It is grown in Sudan, Egypt, India, most of the North African countries, the Middle East and other hot and dry places.

The lance-shaped leaves from this bush are harvested, dried and crushed to make the henna powder. Since henna is a natural product, it has no known side effects.

Henna motifs

Henna motifs

Rich tapestry of colors & patterns

Henna, when applied to the skin, produces a range of exquisitely beautiful shades — from vibrant reds, burnt orange, burnished rust, to rich browns and burgundy.

Patterns vary from culture to culture, although traditionally, they fall into 4 different styles:

The Middle Eastern style is mostly made up of floral patterns (like in Arabic textiles, paintings and carvings).

North African styles are more geometric, with strong, bold motifs.

Indian and Pakistani styles work lines and motifs into intricate, lacy designs — Popular motifs are flowers like lotus, birds (peacock) and paisleys.

Indonesian and South Asian styles are a mix of Middle Eastern and Indian designs.

Is Mehndi here to stay?

Yes, I like to think so — The allure of mehndi has lasted for centuries, crossed cultural divides. Mehndi techniques now play a significant role in contemporary body art. It's a painless, non-permanent alternative to tattoos enjoyed by both men and women — This age old tradition has found new expression in modern day.

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