Henna (also called Mehndi) is the dye prepared from the henna plant. Henna has been used for centuries to dye skin, hair, and fingernails, as well as fabrics including silk, wool, and leather. Henna was an important and widely-traded commodity in the economy of the medieval Mediterranean. It was grown mostly in North Africa (especially Tunis), but there were also henna plantations in Sicily and even in Spain. It was shipped across the Mediterranean, including to Egypt, Greece, France, and southern Italy.
The art of applying henna tattoos is a very old custom and ancient art form. It is difficult to place its exact origin because when people of different cultures move throughout the continents they take their art forms with them, sharing their art with everyone along the way. Some of the earliest records of henna come from Egypt and traces have been found on the mummified bodies of Cleopatra and King Ramses II). Henna is the world's oldest cosmetic and has traditionally been used as part of celebrations, events and general beautification.
Henna as Medicine
Henna was an important medicine in the medieval Mediterranean and was used on humans, pets and livestock. One remedy for “scabs in every limb” features henna. “Scabs in every limb” could be ringworm, a fungal skin disease or another source of open lesions. Another treatment “to allay itching from all limbs” was a paste of “henna from the meadow, onion meal, incense and wild date juice.” Henna has been used to treat psoriasis and eczema, which could have been the source of the “itching from all limbs”. It's now proven that some of these ancient henna remedies actually may have some merit. Henna extracts have proven to show antibacterial and anti fungal effects, and henna is still used as a natural remedy to treat lice, ringworm and dandruff.
Henna's Introduction to India
The earliest evidence that we have for henna use in India seems to point to the Mughals, who arrived in India only in the early 16th century. Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631), wife of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, is often credited with the introduction of henna to India (although this is impossible to prove). This early Indian henna did not have any designs: the henna would be applied as large blocks of color on the palms or hands and fingertips (as seen in picture). Intricate and floral Indian henna designs that we recognize today didn't take form until the 1940s!
Henna is still used world-wide for special occasions like holidays, birthdays and weddings in Africa, Pakistan, India, and the Middle East.
The most popular of the traditions is the Mehndi (Henna) Night, where the bride, her family, relatives and friends get together to celebrate the wedding to come. The night is filled with games, music and dance performances that may have been rehearsed for months prior to the event by those closest to the bride while the bride gets extensive henna patterns done on her hands and feet that go to her elbows and sometimes, knees. The bridal patterns can take hours and are often done by multiple henna artists. The guests will usually receive small henna tattoos on the backs of their hands as well.
Today, brides prefer to have their henna done prior to the mehndi night so that they can enjoy the festivities and also have a deeper stain by the wedding day. Tradition holds that for as long as the henna stain appears on the bride, she doesn't have to do any housework. Sometimes, the henna artist will hide the groom's name in the henna design, and if the groom cannot find it, he must give the bride a gift. Also, it is believed the darker the stain, the better the marriage and the better the mother-in-law will be. So you can imagine why the bride would want the stain to come out dark and last as long as possible!