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India: The Art of Henna

India: The Art of Henna

The Art of Henna

India’s streets and markets are a colorful feast for the eyes. The elaborate patterns in silks, fabric, and architecture all showcase the country’s vibrant, ancient cultures, but it is the designs intricately painted on people’s hands and feet that capture most of my attention. I’ve heard about Mehndi, the application of artistic designs using a natural dye called henna, but what is this age-old tradition, and how does it really work?

Mehndi is a method of body art that uses henna, a dye derived from the dried leaves of a sub-tropical tree, to stain elaborate, temporary designs into the top layers of skin of people who live across the Indian subcontinent, various countries in the Middle East, and North Africa. Although henna is most often associated with India, it was first developed as a dye in ancient Egypt before being spreading to India to decorate the palms and feet of women.

Mehndi designs carry significant meaning. For instance, flower buds represent new life; peacock feathers and paisley reflect beauty; and the sun, moon, and stars reflect a deep and lasting love between brides and grooms.

Hindu wedding preparations often begin with Mehndi, and brides (and sometimes grooms) have their hands and feet decorated with henna. A groom’s name is often incorporated into patterns, which vary from region to region, and painted over a bride’s hands and feet. Some believe that the darker the stain, the deeper the love that the groom has for his bride.

Mehndi is just one of many forms of body art. Its designs are temporary, although around the world, some people practice permanent modifications to their bodies, such as tattooing, piercing, and scarification. No matter which method people use, body art often holds deep cultural significance, signifying rites of passage from youth to adulthood and other events or marks of tribes or communities. Sometimes, body art is simply used to express beauty.



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