This past weekend I was fortunate to be invited and to attend a Hindu/Catholic wedding in New York City. The bride’s family is Punjabi while the groom hails from an Irish Catholic heritage. The wedding was a perfect mash-up of eastern and western traditions. During the ceremony, the couple walked around a fire 5 times to seal their bond, and immediately afterwards turned to a catholic priest to exchange their rings. The bride wore a traditional Indian wedding dress, while the groom wore a full tux, complete with a tailcoat.
During the ceremony, I was not surprised to see the bride with her hands and her feet decorated in bright orange/ brown henna designs. Even the groom sported small areas of flowery scrolls. These designs, called Mehndi, are not new to the western wedding scene. Many women in the US and other western countries have adopted this tradition, as a matrimonial celebratory adornment. But I was curious, where did these designs come from? What does the tradition actually mean? Mehndi is beautiful, yes, but are there deeper meanings, myths, and origins?
What is Mehndi?
The Hindi word “Mehndi” is used to describe the henna plant, the act of henna painting, and the designs used in the paintings. Used for centuries for beautification and conditioning, henna is used as in celebratory rituals from North Africa, the Middle East, as well as in India. Hindus as well as Muslims have used henna as a cosmological cosmetic. Primarily used for festivities and celebrations, it is also a way of making the sacred visible, and communicating with a higher power.
The henna plant is a non-remarkable small woody shrub with white flowers. Reaching 8’-10’ in height, Henna or Lawsonia inermis, is cultivated for both Mehndi and ornamental gardens in tropical and sub-tropical climates.
The practice of Mehndi is so ancient that is difficult to trace where it was originally practiced, but the one of the oldest discoveries of Mehndi is in Egypt. The Egyptians would dye their fingernails with henna as a way to become a member of polite society. It was this discovery and others that suggest that the henna plant originated in Egypt and was later brought to India. During the Mongul Era, when thousands of Hindus converted to Islam, the practice became integrated into the faith and spread to the Middle East and as far as Morocco.
It is said that Pavarti, the consort of Shiva, a powerful Hindu deity of destruction and transformation, used Mehndi to attract and please her husband. Because Shiva responded so strongly to Pavarti’s charms, Mehndi became associated with marital fortune and sexual desire. The story may also suggest a way for a woman to protect herself and her family by appeasing the gods through a cosmetic application. The henna plant is believed to have magical powers, and through its association with Shiva may be why it is used during a marriage ceremony, during a transition from separate to unified.
Shiva and Pavarti
For thousands of years the people of India have been devoted to the art of ornament and adornment. Rigorous study, experimentation, and craft are exemplified in the Mehndi designs. In India, the quest for the perfect ornament or adornment is tandem to the quest to describe the human spirit. Through these designs the spirit is made tangible. In India the beauty of a woman’s creativity is celebrated through the practice of Mehndi.
Mehndi is sometimes used as a way to predict the future. The color of the henna, its quality and intensity, can signal good or bad luck, the outcome of a marriage, or the love felt between two people. If a dot of henna on a man or woman’s forehead stains then the person will be fortunate. If the color of the henna on a bride’s hands is a dark orange, it means that marriage will be a long and loving one. The darkness or lightness of the color also reveals the level of protection that the gods will give the couple during their union.
There is much more to the Mehndi tradition than I can talk about here but if you are interested in learning more I suggest reading Mehndi: The Timeless Art of Henna Painting, as I have used it as a source for this article. But if you would rather do it than read about it I have found it is fairly easy to find henna cones either online or in an Indian supermarket. Some kits even come with templates of various designs for you to follow.