Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Magical Mehndi - It's transformative powers

Photograph by Glenn Katz © 2009 All Rights Reserved.
Mehndi design by: Surinder Marbha

for the royal and the rich, mehndi was a custom of applying intricate decorative patterns on their bodies, mostly on the hands and feet.  The practice has survived over 5ooo years.  

It is a ritualistic process applied with a paste called henna.  Henna is obtained from the henna plant or lawsonia inermis tree.   Its leaves are dried and crushed into a fine powder, then made into a paste.  The application of the paste results in elaborate patterns that stain the skin a reddish color, which can last anywhere from several days to several weeks.  

The practice is so ancient that no one knows the exact origins of this custom.  The ancient Pharaohs used henna to stain the fingers and toes in the mummification process of their dead.  It is believed that the royal Mughal invaders introduced mehndi to the Asian subcontinent during the 12th century AD.  

It may have been adopted into the Hindu tradition when thousands of Hindus converted to Islam.  Skilled artists applied mehndi in intricate and delicate floral Arabian patterns, then the style slowly started changing to the Indian paisley pattern.  

The henna paste was applied to women and some men during auspicious ceremonies, specifically during marriage.  According to the Kama Sutra, mehndi is one of the sixty four arts of women.  It epitomizes a woman's transformation in which she becomes a temptress to her husband.

Mehndi has also been used for cooling, medicinal purposes, as well as a natural dye for the hair.  As time passed, mehndi began to be used not only for the royal families but for the general populations.  

Mehndi is practiced in many parts of the world.  From the deserts of North Africa, the Middle East, & India.  It is a ritual integral in the adornment in Hindu, Muslim, and Sephardic cultures.  
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2008 All Right Reserved.
Caption: A Hindu woman shows the pattern on her hand, while her son peeks thru with  curiosity.
New Delhi, India

It is taught and practiced largely in the oral tradition, with patterns and recipes passed from one generation to the next.  One of the most common beliefs about mehndi is the color of the henna on a bride's hands.  If the color is deep and red, it is said that the love between the husband and wife will be strong and long-lasting.  

Mehndi is magical, and there is no exaggeration.  It has transformative powers -- the metamorphosis of man and woman into husband and wife.  This became part of the vocabulary of expression of love, a second birth, a ritual of transcendence, religion, language, and beautification as a form of worship.  


  1. Shukriyaa Surinder, but all the credit goes to your design and talent!

  2. Wonderful piece! I love the patterns! I relate this art to Picasso creating a masterpiece on the beach just to be washed by the waves. So thankful of photography!

    The appreciation of asian culture is right on my alley Leti!


  3. Thank you Gonzalo,
    I am also an admirer of all asian art and mehndi is meant to be appreciated only while it lasts because they are masterpieces which will be washed away just like you said of the masterpieces of Picasso. Rangoli paintings are much the same way.

  4. congrats Leticia,
    it's wonderful keep it up.