Mehendi or Henna Dye History and Religious Significance

A hand covered in Henna

 Michael Korcuska/flickr/CC By-SA 2.0

Although Mehendi is generally used in many Hindu festivals and celebrations, there's no doubt that the Hindu wedding ceremony has become synonymous with this beautiful reddish dye.

What is Mehendi?

Mehendi (Lawsonia inermis) is a small tropical shrub, whose leaves when dried and ground into a paste, give out a rusty-red pigment, suitable for making intricate designs on the palms and feet. The dye has a cooling property and no side effects on the skin. Mehendi is extremely suitable for creating intricate patterns on various parts of the body, and a painless alternative to permanent tattoos.

Mehendi History

The Mughals brought Mehendi to India as lately as the 15th century AD. As the use of Mehendi spread, its application methods and designs became more sophisticated. The tradition of Henna or Mehendi originated in North Africa and the Middle East. It is believed to have been in use as a cosmetic for the last 5000 years. According to the professional henna artist and researcher Catherine C Jones, the beautiful patterning prevalent in India today emerged only in the 20th century. In the 17th century India, the barber's wife was usually employed for applying henna on women. Most women from that time in India are depicted with their hands and feet hennaed, regardless of social class or marital status.

It's Cool & Fun!

The varied use of Mehendi by the rich and royal from very early times has made it popular with the masses, and its cultural importance has grown ever since. Mehendi's popularity lies in its fun value. It's cool and appealing! It's painless and temporary! No lifetime commitment like real tattoos, no artistic skills required!

Mehendi in the West

The introduction of Mehendi into the Euro-American culture is a recent phenomenon. Today Mehendi, as a trendy alternative to tattoos, is an in-thing in the West. Hollywood actors and celebrities have made this painless art of body painting famous. Actress Demi Moore, and 'No Doubt' crooner Gwen Stefani were among the first to sport Mehendi. Since then stars like Madonna, Drew Barrymore, Naomi Campbell, Liv Tyler, Nell McAndrew, Mira Sorvino, Daryl Hannah, Angela Bassett, Laura Dern, Laurence Fishburne, and Kathleen Robertson have all tried Henna tattoos, the great Indian way. Glossies, like Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, Wedding Bells, People, and Cosmopolitan have spread the Mehendi trend even further.

Mehendi in Hinduism

Mehendi is very popular with both men and women also as a conditioner and dye for the hair. Mehendi is also applied during the various vratas or fasts, such as Karwa Chauth, observed by married women. Even gods and goddesses are seen to adorn Mehendi designs. A large dot in the center of the hand, with four smaller dots at the sides, is an oft-seen Mehendi pattern on the palms of Ganesha and Lakshmi. However, its most important use comes in a Hindu Wedding.

The Hindu marriage season is a special time for Henna tattoos or 'Mehendi.' Hindus often use the term 'Mehendi' interchangeably with marriage, and Mehendi is considered among the most auspicious 'ornaments' of a married woman.

No Mehendi, No Marriage!

Mehendi is not just a way of artistic expression; sometimes it's a must! A Hindu wedding includes many religious rites before and during the nuptials, and Mehendi plays a vital role in it, so much so that no Indian marriage is considered complete without it! The reddish-brown color of Mehendi—which stands for the prosperity that a bride is expected to bring to her new family—is considered most auspicious for all wedding-related ceremonies.

The Mehendi Ritual

A day before her wedding, the girl and her female folks gather for the Mehendi ritual—a ceremony traditionally marked by joie de vivre—during which the bride-to-be embellish their hands, wrists, palms, and feet with the lovely red hue of the Mehendi. Even the groom's hand, especially in Rajasthani weddings, is decorated with Mehendi patterns.

There's nothing strictly sacred or spiritual about it, but applying Mehendi is considered beneficial and lucky, and always regarded as beautiful and blessed. That is perhaps why Indian women are so fond of it. But there're some popular beliefs about Mehendi, especially prevalent among women.

Wear It Dark & Deep

A deeply colored design is generally considered a good sign for the new couple. It's a common belief among Hindu women that during the nuptial rituals the darker the imprint left on the bride's palms, the more her mother-in-law will love her. This belief may have been contrived to make the bride sit patiently for the paste to dry and yield a good imprint. A bride is not expected to perform any household work until her wedding Mehendi has faded. So wear it dark and deep!

Name Game

A bride's wedding designs usually include a hidden inscription of the groom's name on her palm. It's believed, if the groom fails to find his name within the intricate patterns, the bride will be more dominant in conjugal life. Sometimes the wedding night is not allowed to commence until the groom has found the names. This is also seen as a subterfuge to let the groom touch the bride's hands to find his name, thus initiating a physical relationship. Another superstition regarding Mehendi is that if an unmarried girl receives scrapings of Mehendi leaves from a bride, she will soon find a suitable match.

How to Apply

The Mehendi paste is prepared by powdering dried leaves and mixing it with water. The paste is then squeezed through the tip of a cone to draw patterns on the skin. The 'designs' are then allowed to dry for 3-4 hours until it becomes hard and crusted, during which the bride must sit still. This also lets the bride take some rest while listening to prenuptial advice from friends and elders. The paste is also said to cool the bride's nerves. After it dries, the gruff remains of the paste are washed off. The skin is left with a dark rusty red imprint, which stays for weeks.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Das, Subhamoy. "Mehendi or Henna Dye History and Religious Significance." Learn Religions, Sep. 9, 2021, Das, Subhamoy. (2021, September 9). Mehendi or Henna Dye History and Religious Significance. Retrieved from Das, Subhamoy. "Mehendi or Henna Dye History and Religious Significance." Learn Religions. (accessed March 26, 2023).

Watch Now: Learn Mehndi Henna Tattoo Designs