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Body art with henna or ‘mehndi’

Written by    Last updated: October 10, 2006

Everything you need to know about the ancient art of bridal body painting…

Mehndi ‐ body artMade famous in the West by Madonna, henna is popular for tattoos that are safe and temporary, allowing for changes of mood or fashion. An essential part of every Middle Eastern and South Asian wedding, henna is no longer limited to the traditional forms. It is possible to have fabulous designs in glitter gels and metallic body paint just for the day. Match the pattern to a motif on your dress or hide the initials of your husband in an intricate design and have him look for it on the wedding night. Henna has evolved from being traditional to being endlessly creative and contemporary.

What is Henna?

It is an Arabic word for the plant Lawsonia Inermis and is also known as mehndi across South Asia. The leaves of the plant have been used for thousands of years to adorn the hands and feet of women at weddings and other auspicious occasions. The plant has medicinal qualities of being cooling and calming, which makes it ideal for hot countries. The young leaves and twigs are ground into fine powder, then mixed with water and applied on the hands, feet and hair to give them a reddish‐orange color. The henna mud mixture can be applied in beautiful patterns via a small plastic bag with a small hole pricked into one corner. This bag acts as a mini‐decorating tube. The patterns and symbols are passed on from the women of one generation to the next.

How safe is Henna?

Powder made from henna leaves without any other ingredient is natural and safe for even young skins. However, avoid ‘black henna’ as it contains a highly toxic chemical, PPD, which leaves a jet‐black stain in just minutes and is often used in touristy beach areas or carnivals. Real henna smells herbal and leaves a red brown stain. (Pictures showing jet‐black henna on skin are due to the wet paste being in place rather than the final result.)


How long will it take?

Simple motifs can take just a few minutes while intricate bridal designs can take up to a couple of hours. It generally takes about 6 ‐8 hours for the paste to dry. Allow a further 12 hours during which the henna design is not be allowed to get wet or smudged. Remember you will not be able to drive or touch anything for at least 6 hours. Make sure you have a friend or relation on hand to help out. Over the next 2 days the colour will deepen and can last for anything from 1 to 4 weeks.

Where on the body are the designs painted?

Henna works best on the hands and feet, including palms and soles. The patterns can run upwards on the forearms and the calves. Recently it has become a fashion statement to have an armband painted on the upper arm or a pattern on one shoulder or on the belly. Remember that resulting colour will vary on different parts of the body.

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