The art of Henna—called mehndi in Hindi and Urdu—has been practiced in Zanzibar, Pakistan, India, and the Middle East for over 5000 years. It was originally used for its natural cooling properties for people living in hot desert climates. A paste would be made, in which the palms of hands and soles of feet would be soaked. It was also used for medicinal purposes and applied to the skin to treat such ailments as stomach aches, burns, headaches, and open wounds.
When it was discovered the paste left a temporary stain on the skin—the plant contains lawsone, a reddish-orange dye that binds to the keratin present in the skin—Henna’s use progressed to decorative, as it was accessible to people of all socioeconomic levels.
Today, Henna is mainly used in the celebration of special occasions such as weddings and birthdays in the joyous gathering of people. The Henna paste symbolizes good health and prosperity in marriage, and in some cultures, the darker the henna stain, the deeper the love between two individuals.
Henna designs are not tattoos—a tattoo is permanent as ink pierces the skin, while henna is a temporary dye that sits on the skin’s surface. Henna is also used to safely dye hair, nails, and fabrics like silk, wool, and leather.
Black henna, known as ‘wanja’ in Swahili has become increasingly popular in creating henna designs. Wanja used to be made using seeds, which were burnt and then cooked with coconut oil to make a paste, similar to red henna, but nowadays, black hair dye is used as a substitute for the organic paste. Hair dye can cause allergic reactions, blisters and sores if it is used as henna, so if you want a design in black henna ensure that the paste is made from indigo and not hair dye.
During a Swahili wedding, the bride is decorated with henna for luck and to bless the marriage. A bride can sit for hours, as the henna artist paints flowers across the her skin over her arms, decorating both sides of her hands and also over her feet and legs. Her fingernails and toe nails are stained orange with the dye and some brides choose to have their backs and shoulders decorated. Henna patterns in Zanzibar are a fusion of Arab and Indian designs, combining the intricate fine floral and paisley patterns found in Indian ‘mehendi’ with the larger flowers found in Arab henna. Both red and black henna can be used and according to Zanzibari tradition the bride does not have to do any housework in her new home until her bridal henna has faded.
Designs and patterns have evolved over time, falling in and out of fashion. Western influence can clearly be seen, with mamas at the beaches offering henna along with massage and hair braiding to tourists, as part of the beach beauty package. Chinese symbols, Celtic tattoos and pictures of dolphins are increasingly found in pattern books but henna traditions remains strong on Zanzibar and will be used for many centuries to come.
According to San Francisco-based artist, Sabreena Haque of Ritual Design, the material used in the henna practice is a critical part of the process. “The leaves of the plant are dried and made into a fine powder,” she says. “You can mix this powder with sugar, lemon juice and essential oils to create a paste. The plant grows best in desert areas such as the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. It was first discovered in the tombs of Ancient Egypt (3400 B.C.E.). South Asia really popularized it with their extravagant wedding traditions. Now, the art is practiced all over the world — each region has unique styles and traditions.”
Are Henna Tattoos Safe?
The increasingly global popularity of henna has its pros and cons, according to experts. The biggest drawback is perhaps the proliferation of a chemical called paraphenylenediamine(PPD), aka “black henna. ‘Black henna’ contains harmful chemicals and dyes that can burn the skin and leave permanent damage,” Assar says. “People need to be cognizant of what they are asking for. When you ask to get your henna done, triple-check the fact that the henna being used is chemical-free. If one opts for a black or bluish color, Jagua Gel is available and has a beautiful stain. It is all natural and is free of chemicals and dyes.”
Another downside of the globalization of henna, according to Haque, is the widespread appropriation and lack of respect for the sacred tradition. “I think it’s important for anyone that is receiving henna to be respectful and do some research on the traditions that are connected with the art,” Haque says. “You can start by looking up wedding traditions in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. You can also research some religious holidays such as Eid, Diwali, Karva Chauth and Teej. Some hold this art very sacred and it is important to ask your artists the tough questions, so that when people ask you, ‘what it means and where it comes from,’ you can answer enthusiastically and confidently.”
“While henna design is prevalent in South Asia, many communities — Eritrean, Somali, Zanzibar, Romani, Moroccan and Iranian to name a few — share a vast rich history of henna design,” Bühler-Rose says. “It’s important for clients to note that symbolism in many henna designs is sacred. Some communities even consider the substance itself to be sacred. Thus, henna and symbols are used respectfully, sensitively and knowledgeably. For example, placing an image of the deity Gaṇeśa on the feet would be considered disrespectful.”
“As the art continues to spread around the world, it is essential to stay educated on the origins and traditions,” Haque says. “It’s also important not to make a mockery of the art or use it as a costume. Nowadays, people of all backgrounds receive and also apply the art. If you are someone that is applying the art, please be mindful and don’t use cultural terms to promote your henna business. Don’t call yourself a Guru or change your name just to get more clients.”
While the rising popularity of henna has resulted in some distortion and misappropriation of its original significance, many artists are committed to keeping the tradition alive. “I have been artistic my entire life,” Assar says. “I often visited India as a child and everything from the architecture to the textiles in fabric really inspired me to pursue Indian art in general. I would get my henna done at any given chance and absolutely loved it. I started doing henna professionally in 1994. I was 14 years old and my very first client was a bride. The rest is history.”
For Bühler-Rose, henna is a way to preserve and perpetuate her history. “The use of henna evokes memories of precious quiet moments in childhood, during which henna was brewed and applied,” she says. “The symbolism and imagery associated with henna use parallels my own spiritual beliefs and religious practice. Thus, henna design is a harmonious experience for me, one during which I access and use various facets of my identity to be present with, and benefit, people.”
For Haque, mehndi is a deeply personal practice that she’s been able to share with clients of all cultures. “Growing up in a traditional Pakistani home, henna was applied before religious holidays, special events, weddings, and was also applied as a self-care ritual,” she says. “I remember going to Pakistan to stay with my cousins and we would do beautiful designs for each other. I loved the process. My aunties would tell me that it was a good practice of patience and grace, as you need to be mindful as you let the henna dry and set into the skin. As a young girl, I always wanted to be an artist but my immigrant parents weren’t always supportive. When it came to mehndi art, they allowed it because it kept me close to my culture and it made my family members happy when I applied it on them. After over 10 years of being a henna artist, it has now become a way for me to showcase my culture and where I come from, to express myself artistically, a way for me to help people mark milestones and bring more intention into their lives.”
And while Haque encourages both henna artists and clients to respect the sanctity of the tradition, she also believes a modern and gracious interpretation of the practice is possible. “I also believe in the evolution of the art,” she says. “There will be new traditions that will develop over the years, but [it’s important] to always honor its roots. Henna is a simple plant, it has become the foundation to major milestones in people’s lives all over the world and should be treated with reverence.”