Mehndi, or henna, has a long and ancient history. It’s been around for thousands of years. Mehndi was introduced to India in the 12th century, by the Mughals. At first, it was only used by the rich and ruling families. Eventually, it was liked and used by everyone. As more people started using mehndi, the recipes and patterns became more refined. In 13th and 14th century Persian art women and dancers were displayed with henna painted hands. Arabian countries used mehndi for its cooling properties. Muslims used mehndi since the beginning of Islam. Even Prophet Muhammad colored his bear and hair with mehndi. Egyptians used mehndi to dye the hair and fingernails of their dead, over 5000 years ago.
It is difficult to track the history and origins of mehndi because of centuries of migration and cultural interaction. Even though it is difficult to determine where the traditions began, there is some historical evidence claiming that it originated in ancient India as a ceremonial form of art. The most commonly believed tale is that mehndi was introduced to India by the Mughals. It has been used for at least 5000 years for its cosmetic and healing properties. Documentation proves that the ancient Egyptians stained the fingers and toes of their Pharoahs prior to mummification. Mehndi application methods and designs became more sophisticated as its uses spread. In 17th century India, the barber’s wife usually applied henna on women. Most women from that time, in India, are depicted with their hands and feet adorned with henna, regardless of their social class and marital status.
Besides being the key ingredient in mehndi, henna has also been used to dye the manes and hooves of horses; to color wool, silk, and animal skins; and to color men’s beards. Studies of mummies dating back to 1200 BC show that henna was used on the hair and nails of the pharaohs. When the henna plant’s cooling properties were discovered it became very common for the desert people in India to paint their skin and cool down their body temperatures.
The intricate designs that are common today emerged only in the 20th century. Mehndi was used in the U.S. as a hair dye until it became popular back in 1996. Traditional henna uses and applications have been replaced with contemporary designs and especially Arabic mehndi. Even though a few people still prepare their own mehndi, mehndi kits and cones have become very popular. Cones have made the application process faster and easier. Convenient stencils are also widely popular. Mehndi, once sacred, has now become misused and applied all over the body, especially by Westerners. The West sees mehndi as a temporary “tattoo.” However, most of the world has given up traditional designs for the more contemporary Arabic styles, leaving traditional mehndi only for brides. Luckily, there are still few who keep this traditional method alive.
[photo credits: weddingpicturesweddingphotos.net]