Mehendi is the traditional art of decorating women's hands and feet with henna to celebrate weddings and other festive occasions. The word Mehendi describes both the artist's medium, henna (a beautiful reddish dye), and the process of creating and painting the ornate designs. Mehendi (Lawsonia inermis) is the small tropical shrub from which the henna leaf is harvested. For over 5000 years, this substance has been used for medicinal purposes, dyeing fabrics, colouring hair, and decorating bodies.
The decoration of an Indian or Pakistani bride on the day before her wedding is an occasion for a rite of passage known as a mehendi party. It's not a religious tradition, but mehendi decorations are considered to be beautiful and a symbol of good luck. The reddish brown colour stands for the prosperity the bride is to bring to her new family.
The mehendi paste is prepared the night before by powdering dried leaves. The mehendiwalli (female mehendi artist) makes certain the powder is free from twigs and stems, sifts it, and then soaks it overnight in a mixture of tea water and lemon juice in order to deepen the colour. The resulting paste is then placed in rolled plastic sheets (somewhat like a confectioner's pastry tube) so it can be applied to the skin in a controlled fashion.
Then the bride's hands, wrists, palms, and feet are
decorated with intricate designs. The patterns on palm are the most intricate and the sole of the foot is left bare, for practical purposes. The reason why the mehendi decoration is limited to these areas is because the rest of the bride's body will be adourned with silk clothing and ornamented with jewelery.
Wedding tradition calls for the groom's name to be somehow incorporated in the designs on the bride's palm. On the wedding night, the bride will ask her groom to find his name on her hands, thereby encouraging him to touch her hands and initiate a physical relationship. One custom requires that the wedding night cannot commence until the groom succeeds in finding the hidden letters. Another custom says that if he finds the name he is said to dominate the bride, but, if he cannot, the bride rules the groom.
For twenty-four hours, starting from when the painting
begins (an event which may last several hours) and ending the next morning, the drying application of henna must not be disturbed. During this time, the bride cannot feed herself and her male relatives often take care of household tasks. This gives the bride the opportunity to rest while listening to pre-nuptial advice from friends and family. It is a common belief that the darker the marks left on the bride's palms, the more her mother-in-law will love her. Further motivation to sit still and let the patterns darken as much as possible, is that the a bride is not expected to perform any housework until her wedding mehendi has faded.
After all the waiting and sitting still is past, the rough remains of the paste are washed off, leaving a rusty red imprint that lasts for weeks. One superstition claims that if an unmarried girl recieves scrapings of the Mehendi paste from a bride, she will soon find a suitable match herself.
This entire process is the occasion for celebration and music. Family and close women friends (who also get less-elaborate henna patterns on their hands), dance and sing folk-songs to the beat of a drum in order to entertain the bride during the lengthy hand and feet painting. The lyrics traditionally make fun of the prospective groom and in-laws.
The occasion is sad and happy at the same time. After the wedding the bride leaves her family and her home for an entirely new environment. It is the task of the people close to her to cheer her up and keep her in good spirits.