Many people today look at henna tattoos as nothing more than an alternative to a permanent tattoo; they are one of those, “next best things.” They are fun to get, but you don’t have to be committed to it for the rest of your life and there’s also no blood involved, which is definitely a plus for some. What most people do not know, is that henna is actually a sacred ritual for cultures in India, and it has an extremely deep and personal meaning. Henna is not new, though many think it is, and its significance is more than you could ever imagine. Next time you get a henna tattoo, you will know exactly what you are getting; an ancient custom and a healthy dose of history.
The application of henna is called “Mehendi” in India and other parts of the Asian subcontinent. The Mughals introduced the idea in the 12th century A.D. At that time, the rich were the only ones with access to it, and they used it as a form of makeup. They decorated themselves with extremely intricate designs, and artists were often called to apply it.
Henna was also used in Egypt to stain the hands and feet of pharaohs before they were mummified. The belief was that forms of body art would ensure that they were recognized in the afterlife. The origins of henna can only be traced back so far, because travelers would take it from place to place, spreading the practice everywhere they went.
Henna is still widely done all over India today, and is a crucial part of any Indian wedding. Years ago (and often still practiced in some parts of India today), the bride and groom would never meet or even see each other before their marriage. When the bride was brought to the groom for the wedding ceremony, her face was covered. This meant that the only things exposed were her arms, hands, and feet. Of course, this meant that they had to be beautiful, so henna was applied; the more intricate and detailed the design, the better.
In India, even today, weddings are extremely extravagant and the bride especially is adorned with anything and everything to make her look even more beautiful; there is no such thing as too much. The wedding henna is the main part of the bride’s preparation for the wedding, and the process can take hours. The henna is applied from her elbows (and sometimes even higher up the arm) to her fingertips, and from the middle of the calf to her toes.
Because henna is also used for healing, the ritual is seen as a sort of blessing for the bride as well as she leaves her home and begins her new life. Depending on the traditions and beliefs of each family, the henna on the bride’s hands can also be blessings for health, happiness (specifically in marriage), spirituality, and fertility.