Guest Blog Post by Student Ambassador:
Rosemary Yool-Vidal (8th Grade)
Do your parents freak out over the sound of the word tattoo? Then here’s an alternative that’s not only beautiful, but also temporary. Henna Tattoos have been trending for the past few years with celebrities like Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and even the late Prince making it a staple in our Western fashion. This is traditionally called Mehndi, or Hina and it is a huge aspect of Indian culture and tradition that dates back more than 5000 years. Mehndi, or known today by popular name of Henna, is the actual method of decorating/staining the body using the henna paste. This henna tattoo method has become popular throughout the years, with many of the population of people wearing it being females, on/before their wedding days.
Science Behind Henna
The actual henna paste is made from the powder of the plant Lawsonia inermis. The cool part is, even if you touch the leaves you won’t get stained, the leaves must be broken for the chemical compound- Lawsone (C10H6O3) to be released and therefore able to stain your skin. The reason why it stains your skin, and you can have beautiful designs left behind, is because we release keratin from our skin, nails, and hair, which chemically reacts with the Lawsone in the plant in what is called the Michael Reaction/Addition. The Michael reaction/addition is what allows our skin to show the designs clearly. Lawsonia inermis is a bush-like plant that can grow in very dry, and hot climates, while many people think that the plant is originally from India itself, many Botanists beg to differ. While recovering tombs in Egypt, many botanists, or people who study plants, were called into look at the mummies because of unusual reddish-brownish tones along their skin and hair. This led botanists and scientists to conclude that the plant/paste was being used longer than expected by ancient Egyptians, not only to ‘tattoo’ themselves, but also dye other materials from the plant, and therefore originating not from India, but from Egypt.
Back then henna paste wasn’t only used for decorative purposes, but helped people with a variety of tasks. For example, once people discovered the henna plant’s dying abilities, they used it to dye goods like silk, wool, and could even tint pieces of leather. Because there was no variety of manufactured dyes like today, they could use these pigments to create light and dark shades of red/brown. The dye has even been used to color the manes of horses and the fur of other animals. The most important use however, would have to be village populations using the henna stain on their hands and feet as ways to ‘cool down’, in the heat. They found that when they applied the paste and/or mixture to their bodies, it instantly became cool and helped them from the heat of the day. Later, people found the decorative uses for the paste and took the transition from remedial to ornamental purposes.
Myths and Meanings
The intricate and detailed designs are sure to draw in the naked eye and keep you guessing, ‘is there any meaning to these patterns and shades’? The answer is not that definite. The staining is supposed to symbolize the inner and outer sun, with the contrast of the light skin in the palms of the hands and the dark dye representing this relationship. But, possibly one of the most memorable things about the culture of Mehndi, is the myth behind it revolving around the god Shiva and his wife goddess Parvati. The story tells of Parvati, goddess of fertility, love, and nurturing, who wanted to please her husband Shiva, god of creation, destruction, and the arts, so she used the henna paste to make decorations on herself. Shiva turned out to be very pleased, and has then been used by women in hopes of also pleasing their husbands.
Henna is probably the most important aspect to brides-to-be. Because of Parvati’s and Shiva’s love story and reference to the henna many, if not all brides go through the mehndi application process a week, or day before the wedding called: Mehndi Ki Raat. Mehndi Ki Raat is a celebration of the bride-to-be, almost like our version of a bachelorette party, that consists of her closest family and friends that can take place the night before the wedding and has everyone getting henna applied. There are many saying that must do with brides and henna, the first one claims that the darker your henna stains the more good-luck you will have throughout your marriage. One of the more comical ones include, the old saying that the darker your henna design is, the more your mother-in-law will love you and not be mean. And lastly is one of my favorite myths, this consists of the tradition saying “As long as the henna stain appears on the bride, she doesn’t have to do any housework”, so you can only imagine that brides will want to take their time when doing the design and keep it as dark as possible. While these are all old sayings and are not supposed to be considered true, it is a fun way to get rid of cold feet before the wedding by decorating your hands and feet.
- For darker henna, add lemon juice and sugar while the paste is still in the drying process.
- Wrap area with plastic, tissues, to hold in the color.
- To maintain henna, you can apply oil, and moisturizer to keep your skin soft and the design lasting longer.
- Steer clear of black dyes, specifically PPD, or Paraphenylenediamine, that are typically used to enhance the realism of a tattoo. It usually causes serious allergic reactions and/or further consequences.