Henna or mehndi is the art of adorning hands and feet with a green paste made from the bush Lawsonia inermis, belonging to the Lythraceae family. The henna bush is a small shrub that usually grows in hot climatic conditions. It is found in India, Pakistan, Persia, Egypt, Sudan, Syria and Morocco. Due to its cooling properties, henna was initially used by people in these countries to cool their body during the summer season by applying dots on the palms. As time passed, the users of henna began drawing patterns, which over a period of time became intricate designs that are popular even today. The different cultures gave rise to different styles of mehndi and different methods of application.
Henna is also known as Mehandi, Mendee, Mignonette, Smooth Lawsonia and Egyptian Privet.
Still widely practiced in many parts of the world, the art of applying henna is nearly 5,000 years old. It is believed that the henna plant originated in ancient Egypt and traces of this art have been found on Egyptian mummies dating to 1200 BC. It was used to stain the fingers and nails of Pharaohs before mummification. This art of colouring hands and feet with henna was brought to India by the Moghuls in the 12th century.
Traditionally, mehndi was applied on hands, feet and hair. Over time though, it has moved to adorn upper arms, back and even around belly buttons. Mehndi patterns are applied with the help of gold rods, plastic cones, plastic bottles with tips, syringes and toothpicks. Largely applied by women, it is fashionable amongst men too, especially for use on hair.
Henna is traditionally used in wedding ceremonies to decorate the hands and feet of the bride. Mehndi-night celebrations are very common these days. The designs used for brides are usually intricate and floral. In some regions, the bridegroom's hands are also decorated with henna.
The plant is also applied during religious ceremonies, births and circumcisions. In ancient days, graveyards were washed with mehndi to please the spirits. In some countries, the foreheads of cows, bulls, pigs, camels and horses are also decorated with mehndi to protect them from the evil eye.
Pure natural henna powder can be bright green, khaki or brown. Stains rendered by such henna are orange, red, cinnamon, chocolate brown, burgundy–black, black-cherry and nearly black colours. Black stains are not produced by pure and natural henna powder.
Traditionally, mehndi is used in three different styles:
Arabic style: Large floral patterns, similar to those on Arabic paintings and textiles, are drawn in this style.
Indian and Pakistani style: Largely, under the Asian style, peacock, tear drops, lotus, pansies, intricate lines and small floral patterns are used. Finger and toe tips are block coloured.
African style: Such mehndi comprises bold and large geometrical patterns in black and is best avoided as it is sometimes toxic.
Henna making is as personal as cooking or baking. The colour and quality of mehndi paste can vary dramatically according to a woman's technique and is usually kept as a well guarded secret. Learning the art of making a fine henna paste involves, patience, practise and experimentation. There is no one right way.
 The very basics
- The two essentail ingredients- henna and water
The 2 essential ingredients in this recipe are henna and water. If the henna is of top-quality, then you don't reall need anything more. If the henna is well sifted and the water the right temperature, you can get a beautifully deep colour. Unfortunately, not all henna is this fresh, and even water can be a problem if you're using it from the tap. (using bottled water or rainwater is a better option.)
- Temperature and timing
Two important factors are temperature and timing. Henna needs to set, much the way a load of bread needs to rise. If you try to use it before it's ready, you will not get the best results. Like bread, henna also requires warmth. Generally, the paste will be most effective six hours after being mixed, but only if it is kept at the proper temperature during the time.
- 1 cup boiling water
- 2 tablespoons black tea or coffee
- 3 teaspoons sifted henna powder
- 1 teaspoon eucalyptus oil
- Lemon-Sugar Glaze
- strained juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 teaspoon sugar
Boil the cup of water and make your tea or coffee. Let it steep for a few hours. Strain to remove any particles or tea material. Put henna powder into a plastic or glass bowl and add eucalyptus oil, But do not blend! Slowly add the tea/coffee about 3 teaspoons at a time to the powder and stir with a small spoon. Use the spoon to press the powder and water together. Do not worry about lumps. Allow to sit for anywhere between 6 and 12 hours. The longer you let it sit, the smoother the mixture will become as all henna particles become absorbed. If you are impatient, after six hours you can smooth out any remaining lumps with a spoon.
 Steps To Long Lasting Mehndi
- Wash the area to be hennaed. Avoid lotions and oils.
- Wax and manicure prior to the henna application.
- Leave the henna paste on for up to seven or eight hours. The colour depends on each individual’s body chemistry. Henna darkens from orange to burgundy over a period of 48 hours. Heat intensifies the colour of Mehndi or Henna. Therefore, brides usually keep their Henna on overnight and keep their hands and feet covered and warm.
- Peel off the dry henna paste with a spoon or spatula. Avoid using water to remove mehndi.
- Apply a mixture of lemon and sugar to the dry area. Warm mustard oil is also sometimes applied when it is drying.
 Myths surrounding Henna usage
- The most popular belief is that the deeper the colour, the stronger the bond between bride and her mother-in-law. "With henna on her hands", the bride doesn’t have to do any household work, she is pampered and cared for, and thus came the phrase in Hindi, for people especially men who didn't want to work. "Pairon pe kya mehndi lagi hai kya" meaning is their mehndi or henna on your feet that you cannot work?
- Another legend attached to the application of henna has to do with the groom finding his initials in the mehndi design. “If the groom is unsuccessful in finding the initial he gifts his bride with some token,” and it is sometimes said that, if he can’t find them that the bride will be the dominant one in the marriage.”
- The exemption from housework allows is also followed when a woman is hennaed during the childbirth time, to allow her time to bond with her infant child.”
 How to Buy and what to avoid
When shopping for henna, make sure you’re getting the real thing. Any henna paste that advertises “instant” results probably contains chemical dyes such as PPD or Paraphenylenediamine, also known as black henna. It leaves a jet black stain after just a few moments on the skin. While natural henna has a strong earthy smell, black henna has a chemical or ammonia smell and can cause blisters, scarring and lifelong allergies.
If you accidentally receive a chemical henna design, you should remove it immediately, and if you have any adverse reaction see a doctor immediately. It can take up for a week for the reaction to occur, so patch tests are not a good indicator of safety. Also, you may have a reaction on the second or third time you receive a chemical henna, so there is no way to tell what the future holds. There is also a high incidence of cross-reactivity, meaning you can later develop an allergy to hair dyes, as well as dyes in your clothing, especially the color black.”
 Medicinal Usage
Apart from its traditional and ceremonial uses, henna is known for its medicinal properties of healing and relaxation. It is used to heal skin diseases, cure headaches and cool the skin to reduce swelling in hot seasons. Mehndi oil is used by therapists to treat a number of ailments, such as scalp treament for hair fall, hair growth and nail conditioning.
- Soak mehndi leaves in water all night and drink the decanted water in the morning for 40 days—this is an effective remedy for jaundice, leprosy and healing wounds.
- Gargle with mehndi water for relief from stomatitis and ulcers of tongue, cheeks and lips.
- Henna paste is applied on the soles of patients suffering from small pox and chicken pox, as it is believed that this prevents the eyes from damage associated with these diseases.
- Henna paste mixed with vinegar is applied to nails that get disfigured after fungal infection.
- Mehndi also acts as a blood purifier.
- Headaches caused by heat strokes can be treated by smelling henna flowers.
- Olive oil mixed with mehndi leaves is very effective for easing muscular pains and rigidity.
- As mentioned earlier, henna has always been used to cool the body, particularly feet.
- Dry leaves of mehndi are kept in clothes to serve as an insect repellent.
- If your henna powder is chunky and always clogging and jamming, sift it before using.
 Hair Care
Henna acts as a wonderful and trusted remedy for many hair problems. Its most common application is as a natural dye for hair. It not only gives hair a deep, bright-red tint but also strengthens it, coating the hair and tightening the cuticle—the exterior layer of the hair shaft that protects the inner layers. Therefore, it not only gives colour, but also conditions the hair and provides volume.
 Other Natural Hair Treatments Using Henna
Some scalp treatments using henna are:
- To enrich hair and give volume, mix egg yolk with henna paste and leave for an hour or so. Egg yolk contains lecithin, a hair-softening emollient. This adds protein, which helps to smooth the hair cuticles and improve the shine of the hair.
- Use lemon and coconut oil in henna to get rid of dandruff.
- Henna, amla powder, lemon, shikakai, brahmi, harar and bahera protect hair from dandruff, premature greying and damage caused by weather conditions.
- Henna paste can be used as a natural colourant for grey hair. To give a reddish tint to the hair, mix beetroot or red wine or hibiscus in the paste. For browner tones, add coffee, kattha and amla powder.
- For hair fall, mix mehndi leaves with yoghurt and brahmi oil.
- Mixing henna, shikakai powder, green almond powder, lemon and yoghurt nourishes and strengthen the roots. It also acts as a natural conditioner.
 Did You Know?
- Moroccan villagers in the 1800s applied henna for Id-al-Adha or male circumcision, at the sacrificing of a male sheep, as well as for the “Night of the Henna” for the bride to be.
- Though the United States Food and Drug Administration has given unconditional approval to henna for being used as a hair dye, it has not been approved for direct application to the skin.
- If henna is imported into the USA for use as body art, it is illegal and can be seized.
- Henna has some of the most fragrant flowers on earth.
- Henna was supposed to be Cleopatra's favorite perfume and it is said that she dipped the sails of her barge in henna before her meeting with Antony.
- If henna is stored in open containers, under bright lights or in a hot place, it will lose its dyeing potential.
- Henna stored in an airtight, light-proof container in the freezer, will stay good for years.
- Dryer, hotter climates usually enhance the dying potential of henna. In India and Pakistan, Henna is harvested soon after the beginning of the monsoon rains.
 Books and online sources on how to apply henna
- Traditional Mehndi Designs by Dorine Van Den Beukel, Publisher: Shambhala (March 21, 2000)
- Basic Skin Care
- Everyday Mehendi
- Mehndi Design
 Further Reading
- Moroccan Translation Of Symbols used in Henna design
- The Secret History of Henna
- History and Styles
- Allergy to paraphenylenediamine- a chemical dye
 See Also