Mehndi (or Hina) is the application of henna (Hindustani: हेना- حنا- urdu) as a temporary form of skin decoration, most popular in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Somaliland, as well as expatriate communities from these areas. It is typically employed for celebrations and special occasions, particularly weddings. Henna designs are usually drawn on the hands and feet, where the color will be darkest because the skin contains higher levels of keratin. The leaves of the henna plant contain a red-orange dye molecule, lawsone, which has an affinity for bonding with protein, and has been used to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather, silk, and wool. Henna leaves are usually dried and ground into a powder, which is mixed into a paste and applied using a variety of techniques. The henna pasted is usually left on the skin for eight hours; after it is removed, the pattern continues to darken for approximately three days.
Henna has been used to adorn young women’s bodies as part of social and holiday celebrations since the late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean. The Night of the Henna, a ceremony during which henna is applied to the hands and feet of a bride-to-be, and often to other members of the wedding party, was celebrated by most groups in the areas where henna grew naturally: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Zoroastrians, among others, all celebrated marriages by adorning the bride, and often the groom, with henna. Henna was regarded as having “Barakah,” blessings, and was applied for luck as well as joy and beauty. Henna body art has experienced a recent renaissance due to improvements in cultivation, processing, and the diasporas of people from traditional henna-using regions. Talented contemporary henna artists can command high fees for their work. Women in countries where women are discouraged from working outside the home can find socially acceptable, lucrative work doing mehndi.
Origins of Mehndi
The word "henna" comes from the Arabic name Hina for Lawsonia inermis. In the Bible's Song of Songs and Song of Solomon, henna is referred to as Camphire. In the Indian subcontinent, there are many variant words such as Mehndi in North India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In Arabic-speaking countries in North Africa and the Middle East the Arabic word is "hina." In Telugu (India, Malaysia, U.S.), it is known as "Gorintaaku." In Tamil (South India, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka) it is called "Marudhaani" and is used as ground fresh leaves rather than as dried powder. It is used in various festivals and celebrations and used by women and children. It is left on overnight and will last one month or more depending on the plant and how well it was ground and how long it is left on. The different words for henna in ancient languages suggest that henna may have had more than one point of origin.
It is known that henna has been in use as a cosmetic, as well as for its supposed healing properties, for at least 5,000 years, but a long history of migration and cultural interaction has made it difficult to determine with absolute certainty where the tradition began. Some scholars claim that the earliest documentations of henna use are found in ancient Indian texts and images, indicating that mehndi as an art-form may have originated in ancient India. Others claim that the practice of ornamenting the body with henna was taken to India by the Moguls in the twelfth century C.E., centuries after it had been in use in the Middle East and North Africa. Another theory is that the tradition of mehndi originated in North Africa and the Middle Eastern countries during ancient times. Henna is also known to have been used in ancient Egypt, to stain the fingers and toes of the Pharaohs prior to mummification. Another possibility is that the similar use of henna for skin decoration arose independently and perhaps simultaneously in these regions.
It is theorized that dots of henna were first applied to the palms of the hands as a means of cooling down the body. Early users of henna began to add lines and other shapes to the single dot on the palm, eventually developing the elaborate designs used today.
Henna, Lawsonia inermis, also known as Henne, Al-Khanna, Al-henna, Jamaica Mignonette, Mendee, Egyptian Privet, and Smooth Lawsonia, is a small shrub found in the hot climates of India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Persia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, and other North African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. It produces a red-orange dye molecule, lawsone, which has an affinity for bonding with protein, and thus has been used to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather, silk, and wool. Lawsone is primarily concentrated in the leaves, and is in the highest levels in the petioles of the leaf. The leaves, flowers, and twigs are ground into a fine powder, then mixed with hot water. Various shades are obtainable by mixing with the leaves of other plants, such as indigo. Tea, coffee, cloves, tamarind, lemon, sugar, and various oils are also used to enhance the color and longevity of design.
Products sold as "black henna" or "neutral henna" are not made from henna, but may be derived from indigo (in the plant Indigofera tinctoria) or cassia, and may contain unlisted dyes and chemicals.
Henna is commercially cultivated in western India, Pakistan, Morocco, Yemen, Iran, Sudan, and Libya. Presently the Pali district of Rajasthan is the most heavily cultivated henna production area in India, with over one hundred henna processors operating in Sojat City.
Traditions of Henna use
Henna has been used to adorn young women’s bodies as part of social and holiday celebrations since the late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean. The earliest text mentioning henna in the context of marriage and fertility celebrations comes from the Ugaritic legend of Baal and Anath, which has references to women marking themselves with henna in preparation to meet their husbands, and Anath adorning herself with henna to celebrate a victory over the enemies of Baal. Wall paintings excavated at Akrotiri (dating prior to the eruption of Thera in 1680 B.C.E.) show women with markings consistent with henna on their nails, palms and soles, in a tableau consistent with the henna bridal description from Ugarit. Many statuettes of young women dating between 1500 and 500 B.C.E. along the Mediterranean coastline have raised hands with markings consistent with henna. This early connection between young, fertile women and henna seems to be the origin of the Night of the Henna, which is now celebrated world-wide.
The Night of the Henna, a ceremony during which henna is applied to the hands and feet of a bride-to-be, and often to other members of the wedding party, was celebrated by most groups in the areas where henna grew naturally: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Zoroastrians, among others, all celebrated marriages by adorning the bride, and often the groom, with henna. Henna was regarded as having “Barakah,” blessings, and was applied for luck as well as joy and beauty. Brides typically had the most henna, and the most complex patterns, to express their great joy, and their desire for luck. Some bridal traditions were very complex, such as those in Yemen, where the Jewish bridal henna process took four or five days to complete, with multiple applications and resist work.
A bride whose family is not wealthy wears her mehndi in place of ornate gold jewelery. It is said that when a bride has mehndi done for her wedding, the darker the design, the more her mother-in-law loves her. A good deeply-colored design is a sign of good luck for the marital couple. It is common for the names of the bride and groom to be hidden in the mehndi design; and the wedding-night cannot commence until the groom has found the names. A bride is not expected to perform any housework until her wedding mehndi has faded (and it is jokingly reputed that some lazy brides may secretly re-do their henna designs to prolong their leisure). 
The patterns of mehndi are typically quite intricate and predominantly applied to brides before wedding ceremonies. However, traditions in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan sometimes expect bridegrooms to be painted as well. In Rajasthan (north-west India), where mehndi is a very ancient folk art, the grooms are given designs that are often as elaborate as those for brides. In Kerala (south India), henna is known as mylanchi and is commonly used by the Mappila (Muslim) community during weddings and festivals.
In Arabic and Persian speaking countries, such as Morocco, henna is applied for any special occasion. It is done during the seventh month of pregnancy, after having the baby, weddings, engagements, family get-together, as well as many other celebrations. Across the henna-growing region, Purim, Eid, Diwali, Karva Chauth, Passover, Nawruwz, Mawlid, and most saints’ days were celebrated with the application of some henna. Favorite horses, donkeys, and salukis had their hooves, paws, and tails hennaed. Battle victories, births, circumcision, birthdays, Zar, as well as weddings, usually included some henna as part of the celebration. When there was joy, there was henna, as long as henna was available. Henna has many traditional and commercial uses, the most common being as a dye for hair, skin and fingernails, as a dye and preservative for leather and cloth, and as an anti-fungal. Henna was used as a hair dye in Indian court records around 400 C.E., in Rome during the Roman Empire, and in Spain during Convivienca. It was listed in the medical texts of the Ebers Papyrus (Sixteenth century B.C.E. Egypt) and by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya as a medicinal herb. In Morocco, wool is dyed and ornamented with henna, as are drum heads and other leather goods. Henna will repel some insect pests and mildew.
The United States Food and Drug Administration has not approved henna for direct application to the skin. It is unconditionally approved as a hair dye, and can only be imported for that purpose. Henna imported into the USA which appears to be for use as body art is subject to seizure, and it is illegal to use henna for body art in the U.S., though prosecution is rare.
Preparation and application of Henna
Henna body art is made by applying henna paste to the skin: The lawsone in the paste migrates into the outermost layer of the skin and makes a red-brown stain. Whole, unbroken henna leaves will not stain the skin; henna will not stain skin until the lawsone molecules are released from the henna leaf. Fresh henna leaves will stain the skin within moments if they are smashed with a mildly acidic liquid, but it is difficult to form intricate patterns from coarse crushed leaves. Henna leaves are usually dried, ground, and sifted into a fine powder which can be worked into a paste that can used to make intricate body art. Commercially available henna powder is made by drying the henna leaves and milling them to powder, then the powder is sifted. Henna can be bought at a store in a plastic or paper cones. The powder is mixed with lemon juice, strong tea, or other mildly acidic liquids. Adding essential oils with high levels of "terps," monoterpene alcohols such as tea tree, eucalyptus, cajeput, or lavender, will improve skin stain characteristics. The henna mix must rest for six to twelve hours so that the leaf cellulose is dissolved, making the lawsone available to stain the skin. It is then mixed to a toothpaste consistency and applied using a number of techniques, including resist techniques, shading techniques, and thicker paste techniques. Henna paste is usually applied to the skin using a plastic cone or a paint brush, but sometimes a small metal-tipped jacquard bottle used for silk painting (a jac bottle) is used.
Once applied to the skin, lawsone molecules gradually migrate from the henna paste into the outer layer of the skin. Though henna's lawsone will stain the skin within minutes, the longer the paste is left on the skin, the more lawsone will migrate. Henna paste will yield as much dye as the skin can easily absorb in less than eight hours. The paste tends to crack and fall off the skin during this time, so it is often sealed down by dabbing a sugar/lemon mix over the dried paste, or simply adding some form of sugar to the paste. This also increases the intensity of the color. The painted area is often wrapped with tissue, plastic, or medical tape to lock in body heat, creating a more intense color on the skin. The wrap is worn overnight and then removed.
When the paste has fallen off the skin or been removed by scraping, the stain will be orange, but should darken over the following three days to a reddish brown. The final color can last anywhere from two weeks to several months depending on the quality of the paste. Soles and palms have the thickest layer of skin and so take up the most lawsone, and take it to the greatest depth, so that the palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet will have the darkest and most long-lasting stains. Steaming or warming the henna pattern will darken the stain, either during the time the paste is still on the skin, or after the paste has been removed. Chlorinated water and soaps may spoil the darkening process: alkaline may hasten the darkening process. After the stain reaches its peak color it will appear to fade. The henna stain is not actually fading, the skin is exfoliating; the lower, less stained cells, rise to the surface, until all stained cells are shed.
The style of mehndi varies from country to country, spanning different cultures and religious traditions, and making it possible to recognize cultural distinctions. Three main traditions can be distinguished, aside from the modern use of henna as a temporary tattoo. Generally, Arabic (Middle-Eastern) mehndi features large, floral patterns on hands and feet, while Indian (Asian) mendhi uses fine lines, lacy, floral and paisley patterns covering entire hands, forearms, feet and shins; and African mehndi art is large and bold, with geometrically patterned angles. African mehndi patterns often use black henna (potentially very toxic) while Asian and Middle Eastern mehndi is usually reddish brown (or orange). It is also a common custom in many countries to step into the mehndi, or simply apply the paste without creating a pattern in order to cool, protect or treat the skin (sometimes referred to as a "henna-shoe").
While much of the tradition and symbolism around the use of mehndi has been lost over the generations, in many places, henna is thought to hold special medicinal or even magical properties. It is used to help heal skin diseases, condition and color the hair, as well as prevent thinning hair, and to cool the skin to reduce swelling in hot climates. It is made into a beverage to heal headaches and stomach pain. Newly purchased homes in Morocco often have their doors painted with henna to wish for prosperity and chase away evil. Henna is used as a protection against the "evil eye." The foreheads of bulls, milk cows, and horses are sometimes decorated with henna for their protection. Tombstones in graveyards are sometimes washed with henna to please the spirits. While much of the symbolism of mehndi designs is being lost, some symbols remain popular, such as the peacock, which is the national bird of India, the lotus flower, and an elephant with a raised trunk, which is a symbol of good luck.
Though henna has been used for body art and hair dye since the Bronze Age, henna body art has experienced a recent renaissance due to improvements in cultivation, processing, and the diasporas of people from traditional henna using regions. The fashion of "Bridal Mehndi" in Northern Libya and in North Indian diasporas is currently growing in complexity and elaboration, with innovations in glitter, gilding, and fine-line work. Recent technological innovations in grinding, sifting, temperature control, and packaging henna, as well as government encouragement for henna cultivation, have improved dye content and artistic potential for henna.
Though traditional henna artists belonged to the Nai caste in India, and low-ranking barbering castes in other countries, talented contemporary henna artists can command high fees for their work. Women in countries where women are discouraged from working outside the home can find socially acceptable, lucrative work doing mehndi. Morocco, Mauritania, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, as well as India and many other countries have thriving women’s henna businesses. These businesses are often open all night for Eids, Diwali, and Karva Chauth, and many women may work as a team for large weddings, where hundreds of guests will be decorated with henna in addition to the bride and groom.
Popularity in the West
Mehndi decorations became fashionable in the West in the late 1990s, where they are sometimes called "henna tattoos." This term is not accurate, because tattoos are defined as permanent surgical insertion of pigments underneath the skin, as opposed to pigments resting on the surface. Mehndi, as a temporary, pain-free body decoration alternative to tattooing, is worn as a fashion accessory by both men and women. A number of Western musicians and Hollywood personalities have been seen sporting mehndi patterns, including actress Demi Moore, Gwen Stefani, Madonna, Nell McAndrew, Liv Tyler, "The Artist formerly known as Prince," and Drew Barrymore. Mehndi has been featured in a number of Western magazines including Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, Wedding Bells, People, and Cosmopolitan.
Chemical and allergic reactions
Allergic reactions to natural henna are rare. The onset of a reaction to natural henna occurs within a few hours, with symptoms including itching, shortness of breath, and/or tightness in the chest. Some people have an allergic reaction to an essential oil used to "terp" the mix, and others are allergic to lemon juice often used to mix henna. Lawsone, the dye molecule in henna, can cause hemolytic oxidation in people who have G6PD deficiency, an inherited enzyme deficiency. A large application of henna to a child with G6PD deficiency (such as on the scalp, palms and soles) may cause severe hemolytic crisis and may be fatal. Pre-mixed henna body art pastes may have ingredients added to darken stain, or to alter stain color. The FDA considers these to be adulterants and therefore illegal for use on skin. Some pastes have been found to include silver nitrate, carmine, pyrogallol, disperse orange dye, and chromium, which can cause allergic reactions, chronic inflammatory reactions, or late-onset allergic reactions to hairdressing products and textile dyes.
“Black Henna” is a misnomer arising from imports of plant-based hair dyes into the West in the late nineteenth century. Partly fermented, dried indigo was called “black henna” because it could be used in combination with henna to dye hair black. This gave rise to the belief that there was such a thing as “black henna” which could dye skin black. Indigo will not dye skin black.
In the 1990s, henna artists in Africa, India, the Arabian Peninsula and the West began to experiment with para-phenylenediamine (PPD)-based black hair dye, applying it as a thick paste as they would apply henna, in an effort to find something that would quickly make jet black temporary body art. PPD can cause severe allergic reactions, with blistering, intense itching, permanent scarring, and permanent chemical sensitivities. Estimates of allergic reactions range between 3 percent and 15 percent of people applying black henna to their skin. The use of true henna does not cause these injuries. Henna boosted with PPD can cause life long health damage. Once a person is sensitized to PPD, the use of synthetic hair dye can be life threatening. Para-phenylenediamine “black henna” use is widespread, particularly in tourist areas where customers want a quick result and there is a demand for body art that emulates “tribal tattoos.”
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