Use of henna for body art has enjoyed a recent renaissance due to improvements in cultivation, processing, and the emigration of people from traditional henna-using regions.
Henna is a small shrub with small, dark green scented leaves. The leaves are dried and ground down into a powder which is finely sieved two or more times through a fine nylon cloth. These filtering process results in removing the coarse fibres from the powder , making what is left finer and easier to use.
In India henna - or what is known as mehendi - is also a way for a bride and groom to get to know each other before an arranged marriage. A variety of traditions underlie the use of henna, including wedding games and legends. For example, the groom's name is usually written somewhere within the bride's henna, if he cannot find his name within the intricate design, the bride is said to have the control in the marriage. Also a dark henna design for both bride and groom signifies that the two will have a strong relationship. Also the longevity issue is particularly important to the bride because she doesn't have to do any household work during the period she bears her wedding henna designs. This is probably the first and last time in her life that she'll be a lady of leisure so she does make an effort to preserve the work for as long as possible. (Not so sure about the truth in this last statement but it makes for a fun trivia fact anyway!)
No wedding in India is complete without mehendi. All the girls on the bride's side look forward to the day when the mehendi lady comes by. Sometimes she is accompanied by a couple of others, but they all come armed with the necessary tools for that perfect mehendi - henna powder, eucalyptus oil, tea decoction, lime juice and sugar! She takes the henna powder in a bowl, adds the tea till it becomes a thick paste (similar to a dough). Then eucalyptus oil, sugar ansd lime juice are added and mixed well to make it into a smooth and thin paste. Then she fills a cone (sort of like a pastry cone) with the henna, ties it at one end and lets her imagination fly....
The expert takes turns drawing her elaborate designs on the girls, but saving the best and most elaborate for the bride. Its amazing to watch them draw their creations. All through this - which can sometimes last an entire day day - the girls sit around and gossip. Since they cannot move around too much, food and unending cups of chai are all brought to them. Then after the mehendi has dried, they scrape it off but are careful not to wet their hands. Usually by the next morning, the red would have turned to a deeper crimson, almost bordering on black, which can last for up to 2 weeks!
Here are some beautiful hennaed hands and feet.....what incredible skill. These are artists in their own right!
Images via flickr's public sharing.