Mystical Henna: The Sacred Art of Mendhi

By Patti Newton

People from cultures around the world have always used body markings to adorn the body, and have always used plants as their allies—ingesting them, smoking them, applying them to the body one way or another. Anthropologists have found enough evidence from ruins and artifacts to show that tattoos have flourished for the last 15,000 years.

Who was the first woman to rub henna leaves on her body and find it beautiful? When did henna become a sacred vehicle of transformation and good fortune? When did it first lend itself to human rites of passage, offering protection and beauty? No one knows for sure, but their are many clues. Let us journey back in time long, long ago, 5,000 years, to Egypt, where the sun beats down at extreme temperatures and the great pyramids stand testimony to the mystery and strength of a culture renowned for its appreciation of beauty and power, mystical and otherwise. Down in the dark and sacred tomb of Ramses II, the shrouds of fabric wrapping his mummified body are dyed with henna as a final protection. His hair is dyed a burnt red and his palms are saturated with henna, as are the soles of his feet and the nails on his fingers. At sunset the ancient Egyptians would burn the henna plant as incense to invoke the spirit of Ra.

Henna was one of the first cosmetics. During the third and fourth dynasties, when the great pyramids were being built, Cleopatra went to extreme lengths to protect and enhance her royal beauty with henna. Her tale is that of a great passion and the destructive power of jealousy. Leaving Egypt, she crosses the Mediterranean to marry Julius Caesar. With her to the shores of Rome went baskets of henna carried by her faithful handmaidens. As the familiar story goes, she forsakes Caesar and falls deeply in love with Mark Antony. Meanwhile, the henna seeds the beautiful Egyptian Queen brought with her were being planted firmly in the soil of Rome.

From this passionate love between Cleopatra and Mark Antony came an exquisite girl child, Cleopatra Selene.

Word soon spread that the little Egyptian princess had been given in marriage to the handsome King Juba II of Morocco. From Rome they would cross the sea to reign together in Morocco. With her came her court of women and all their potions, amongst them henna.

Morocco is a land filled with exotic mystery. Long narrow streets wind endlessly, filled with beautiful dark skinned people in striking robes of brilliant colors. Veiled women walk hand in hand, speaking only with their eyes. The senses are overcome by the smells of sweet tea and aromatic spices. Men sit behind colored baskets, seducing snakes to twist and dance from ancient songs played on eerie sounding flutes. In this harsh land, one feels the presence of Jinni. These invisible beings from the spirit world demand much attention and appeasement to make dreams come true. Cleopatra Selene arrives at this foreign shore. She and her ladies mingle with the women of Morocco and, as with women everywhere, intimacies develop, stories are told, beauty secrets exchanged. The customs between these women interweave. Cleopatra Selene brought henna to Morocco only to find it was already there. Cleopatra’s daughter was to learn more about the secrets of henna, because in Morocco the use of henna went beyond the purpose of beautification and adornment. Here, henna eroticizes a woman who must live behind veils. Henna parties are called to help a woman who is troubled or when there is a need to contact the spirit world.

The henna party is for mature women. The event is one of liberation. For three days Cleopatra Selene will receive henna decorations on both hands and feet. Each morning the henna is scraped off with a silver bangle and reapplied to get the darkest stain possible. The henna will be protected by carefully wrapped scarves while she sleeps. For three days she must remain almost immobile. On the third day the henna is baked onto her skin over aromatic coals to darken it even more. The last day of the henna party arrives. Cleopatra Selene reclines, wrapped in gorgeous robes. Incense perfumes the room. It is sunset. The room is aglow from the light of a thousand candles. Night falls. The women’s jewelry glitters. They dance around Cleopatra Selene, scarves become untied, hair swirls, the music gets stronger. The Jinni has answered. Finally the trance comes to an end. The women collapse on the floor where they are taken care of until they revive. The women of Cleopatra Selene’s court go home. They have been initiated.

In Morocco, henna is used to guard against misfortune. It is used for its magical powers. The traditional use of henna is similar to prayer, and whether it reveals a regret, a request, a fear or a superstition, it admits to the presence of forces beyond our comprehension, forces infinitely greater than ourselves.

The henna plant is a symbol of transformation. Lawsonia Inermis, or henna grows primarily in Africa, India and the Middle East. The henna plant can grow from 10–15 feet tall with small bright green leaves amid a thorny bark. It produces beautiful flowers that emit a sweet, seductive scent reminiscent of jasmine and rose. The flower is petite and four petalled, with slender, elongated antennas bursting from the center. It blooms in red, rose, white, yellow, cream and pink.

Fresh henna leaves have no odor, even when crushed between the fingers. When the leaves have been dried and sifted into a fine powder they will emit a unique and aromatic fragrance, a powerful and heady combination of earth, clay, chalk, and damp green leaves.

Henna is usually harvested several times a year when it is about one and a half feet tall. The leaves are dried in the sun for two days, shaken off the branches, gathered up and ground to a powder. When mixed with various combinations of natural ingredients to form a thick paste, henna will leave a deep reddish-brown stain on the skin that will last from one to three weeks. Darkness in color depends on the area of the body it is applied to, the quality of the henna powder, and the quality and length of the application. The process is absolutely painless—no needles are used, and no skin is broken. Henna paste is applied to the top of the skin.

Mehndi is the Hindi word used to describe the art form of painting henna designs on the body. Mehndi is practiced in many parts of the world. Traditionally, it is associated with romantic love and the ritual of marriage. Henna designs are integral part of bridal adornment in Hindu, Moslem, and Sephardic traditions. It is also used for everyday adornment. In India, North Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, henna is seen as a talisman, a blessing upon the skin with the power to bring the wearer happiness and wealth.

Design details vary from culture to culture. Generally, Indian designs are made of finely drawn floral and paisley patterns. Arabic designs concentrate on larger floral motifs on the hands and feet and African designs include bold geometric shapes.

Traditionally, Mehndi is practiced exclusively by women, and taught in the oral tradition, with recipes and patterns passed from one generation to the next.

While Mehndi retains an aura of Festivity, it remains a sacred practice intended not just to beautify the body, but to invite good fortune into one’s home, one’s marriage, and one’s family. Henna is still used throughout the world today as part of the marriage ritual. It is said a good dark design, applied to the bride’s hands and feet, is a sign of good luck for the married couple.

Pregnant Moroccan women in their seventh month seek out well respected henna practitioners called hannayas, to have certain symbols painted on their ankle, which will be encircled with a corresponding amulet. These are meant to protect both the mother and the child through birth.

In classic Indian tradition, there is no formal ceremony at the time of puberty to celebrate the young girl’s coming of age. However, that time usually coincides with the celebration of marriage. Mehndi marks the rite of passage in a woman’s life and is associated with the initiation into womanhood. The girl about to marry stands on the threshold of another existence. The realm of the sexual unfolds before her, as does the medium of henna painting. Like lovemaking, this becomes a part of her vocabulary of feminine expression. Mehndi is included in the Kama Sutra as one of the sixty-four acts for women. In India, adornment is associated with transformation and transcendence. Ceremonial painting is considered sacred work, and beautification a form of worship.

Recently, the art of Mehndi has enjoyed a revival. Western culture has adapted and altered the traditions so that henna, as a pain-free body decoration alternative to permanent tattooing, is now one of the most popular trends among both men and women. Mehndi is not a mere fad that is expected to rapidly fade away. On the contrary, it provides a long-lasting and spiritual method for adorning the body. Today henna tattooing is in world-wide demand and millions of men and women have discovered the timeless mystique of this beautiful art form.

Patti Newton is a professional Henna artist in Brattleboro, Vermont. She is a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and former owner of Midnight Visions, a retail store that was located in Brattleboro for eight years (1987-1995).

She now offers Henna tattooing, ear and nose piercing, hair wrapping, and nail piercing downstairs in Beadniks, 115 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt. As one descends the staircase surrounded by glittering beaded curtains, to the comfortable waiting area decorated with plush velvet tapestries, brocade pillows, celestial and Celtic fabrics, soft lighting, incense and music from around the world, one gets the feeling a unique experience is about to unfold....

Patti is available Mon -Thurs 2-6 pm and Sat. 11-6 by appointment, or walk-ins welcome. For more information, call 802-257-5114.

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