Henna, a potent natural dye, is derived from the dried, crushed leaves of the Lawsonia inermis shrub. Although the leaves are green, the dye produced ranges from an orange shade to a deep brick red-brown. It is henna which produces the lovely reddish hair color favored by many Middle-Eastern and North African women. It is also used for body ornamentation, to paint designs upon the body, traditionally the palms and soles, for the purposes of beauty and spiritual benefit.
Once familiar only within certain ethnic enclaves, the art of henna painting, also known as mendhi, has become fashionable worldwide and for good reason. Besides its beauty, henna is safe, temporary and painless. The dye, which is permanent on fabric or wood, lingers anywhere from 2-12 weeks on skin, depending upon the quality of the henna, its reaction with an individual's skin and the care taken to preserve the design. Henna is painted upon the skin; there are no needles, cutting of the flesh or insertion of dyes within the flesh. Furthermore, during the thousands of years that henna has been an art form, it has simultaneously been used for medicinal healing purposes. Henna is believed to improve the texture of hair and skin. On a spiritual level, henna is believed to bestow happiness, good fortune and all the benevolence of the universe.
Henna's historical trail begins in ancient Egypt. Modern Egypt remains one of the main commercial suppliers of the plant, as do the parts of Sudan corresponding with ancient Nubia. Egypt's associations with henna are confirmed by its botanical nickname: Egyptian privet. The term "henna" derives from the Arabic, al khanna. There is a hieroglyph, pouquer, which is believed to indicate the henna plant. The term mendhi, used synonymously for henna, derives from the Sanskrit mehandika. Much of the modern revival of henna derives from its popularity in India and Pakistan. It is believed, however, that the plant arrived in India as a gift from Egypt and there is much debate as to when it actually arrived on the subcontinent, perhaps as late as the Mogul Empire.
The earliest historical documentation of henna are the traces found upon the nails of mummified pharaohs. It is fairly certain based upon that evidence and existing images that henna was used to color the nails and to condition them: a royal manicure, if you will. There is some speculation that henna was also used, then as now, to create designs upon the body but because of henna's temporary nature, that theory may be impossible to prove. There is evidence that it was used in that fashion by Asian worshippers of the Semitic goddess Anat, one of the few foreign deities to achieve popularity in ancient Egypt, so it's fairly safe to speculate that the Egyptians were at least familiar with all henna's potential uses.
Whether or not there was an earlier indigenous tradition, the art of henna painting would become firmly established in Egypt alongside Islam. Henna's vocabulary of styles is based largely on region: Bedouins tend to create stark, solid blocks of color while in India very elaborate and intricate forms are favored. Berber designs are characterized by a bold geometry. Classical Arabic and Middle Eastern designs tend to be delicately geometric and floral rather than representational and this is characteristic as well of much of the henna design seen in modern Egypt. The palm is not quite so "filled-up" as is favored in India or Pakistan.
Henna, like tattooing, demonstrates a cultural process of gender-reversal. Tattoos, until recently associated in the West as almost exclusively masculine, were in ancient Egypt associated almost exclusively with women. Henna's ancient traces exist on male pharaohs; in the following centuries, it would become a plant associated almost exclusively with women and the milestones of their lives. Henna has become an integral part of bridal rituals around the world. Whereas in Western nations, a bridal shower or rehearsal dinner may precede the wedding, in many other parts of Earth, the bride is the star of a henna party. (In fact, there is some linguistic speculation that the term "hen party" derives from just such rituals.)
The henna, used to ornament the bride, is a constant; other details differ depending upon region and culture. In Mauritania, for instance, even the groom may be decorated. Egypt, too, has integrated henna into traditional wedding rituals. Leylet el-henna, the henna night, begins with a trip to the hammam (bathhouse) for the bride, her female relatives and friends. (Indeed for best effect, if you are having henna done, make sure the area is clean and exfoliated: if a trip to the bathhouse is impossible, a loofah, at the very least, is recommended.)
Then onto the party: the bride is given a lump of henna to hold in her palm. One by one, guests add golden coins to the sticky paste. Once the lump is filled with coins, it's scraped off (handling henna for even a short time will leave traces of the dye). Beautiful designs are then applied to her hands and feet, necessitating the bride to sit quietly for hours, while her friends regale her with advice and good fellowship. The henna is then wrapped in linen, left on overnight and removed the next morning to reveal the beauty of the designs. It takes about forty-eight hours for henna's color to fully deepen and mature; decorating is thus timed so that the designs will be at their loveliest for the wedding and the nuptial night.
Any remaining henna is given to the guests to hold during the ceremony so that they may share in the joy and blessings that henna brings.
Henna stains nails with a deep color that may remain for months, only growing out with the nail. If you are handling henna and do not wish to stain your nails, wearing nail polish may protect them. On the other hand, some, like those ancient pharaohs, may appreciate the benefits of a henna manicure: it doesn't chip, needs little maintenance and henna improves the health and quality of the nails. Obtain or create
One teaspoon powdered and sifted henna powder
Two teaspoons strong black tea
5 drops of essential oil of eucalyptus
1. In a glass mixing bowl, combine all ingredients.
2. Mix, stirring in one direction to eliminate any lumps. The texture should be akin to toothpaste or stiff cake frosting: add extra powder or liquid, a little at a time, to achieve this consistency.
3. Once the paste is smooth, cover the bowl with a towel and let it sit overnight in a warm place before using.
You can also reap the benefits of henna without the color: neutral (colorless) henna powder may also be used to condition the nails. Neutral henna powder is usually sold as a hair-care product. All polish must be off your nails for this treatment to be effective.
Add half a teaspoon of the neutral powder to one half cup of warmed spring water. You may also add a teaspoon of yogurt (full fat for best effect) and one or two drops of essential oil of chamomile for extra conditioning. Mix the ingredients in a glass bowl, creating a paste. Gently place a lump of the paste on your nails and cuticles; allow it to remain for about fifteen minutes and then remove.
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Last Updated: Aug 1st, 2011
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