Mehndi is the traditional art of adorning the hands and feet with a paste made from the leaves of the henna plant. Henna is a small shrub called hawsonia inermis, and is also know as Henne, Al-Khanna, Al-henna, Jamaica Mignonette, Mendee, Egyptian Privet, and Smooth Lawsonia. Henna grows in hot climates and is found in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Persia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco and other North African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. The leaves, flowers, and twigs are ground into a fine powder, then mixed with hot water. Various shades are obtainable by mixing with the leaves of other plants, such as indigo. Tea, coffee, cloves, lemon, sugar, and oil are also used to enhance the colour and longevity of design.

There is some speculation as to the first origin of the cosmetic use of henna. What is known for sure is that henna has been used as a cosmetic, as well as for its supposed healing properties for at least 5000 years. Centuries of migration and cultural interaction makes it difficult to determine where certain traditions began. There is some historical evidence to support that mehndi as an art-form may have originated in ancient India. However, some sources claim that the use of henna was taken to India by the Moguls in the 12th Century C.E., centuries after use in the Middle East and North Africa. There is evidence to support that the tradition of mehndi originated in North Africa and the Middle Eastern countries during ancient times. One of the earliest documentations of henna use comes from ancient Egypt, where it is known to have been used to stain the fingers and toes of the Pharaohs prior to mummification. It is possible that the similar use of henna in these areas arose independently and perhaps simultaneously, and this could account for the difficulty in pinpointing an exact birthplace of mehndi art. The art varies from country to country, spanning different cultures and religious traditions, and making it possible to recognize distinctions in cultural style. Generally, Arabic mehndi features large, floral patterns on hands and feet, while Indian mehndi uses fine line, lacy, floral and paisley patterns covering entire hands, forearms, feet and shins. African mehndi art is large, and bold with geometrically patterned angles. African mehndi patterns are usually black while Asian and Middle Eastern mehndi is often reddish brown. It is also a common custom in many countries to step into the mehndi, or simply apply the paste without creating a pattern.

In recent popular culture, mehndi has enjoyed a renewal. Western musicians and Hollywood personalities have adopted and altered the tradition so that mehndi, as a temporary, pain-free body decoration alternative to tattooing is now the hottest new trend among women and men. As the trend grows in popularity, so grows the list of personalities that have been seen sporting mehndi patterns: actress Demi Moore, and No Doubt's Gwen Stefani were among the first celebrities to been seen wearing mehndi; mehndi has been featured in countless magazines including Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, People, and Cosmopolitan. The album No Quarter by Plant and Page features a picture of hands with mehndi. Mehndi can be seen in the film Kama Sutra. The ever growing list of famous names of famous people who have been seen with mehndi includes: Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Nell McAndrew, Liv Tyler, "The Artist formerly known as Prince", Drew Barrymore, Mira Sorvino, Daryl Hannah, Kathleen Roberson, Laura Dern, Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Bassett.

What are some other uses for mehndi?

Many women use mehndi as hair dye; henna colors hair a very bright red. In Middle Eastern countries such as Yemen, people apply henna in a similar technique to the Indian/Muslim form, but as a full body paint. In this style, the mehndi runs all over a person's body, is less intricate than Indian mehndi, and is additionally considered complete in itself with henna applied, in contrast to the Indian style, in which the henna is removed to reveal stained skin. Also, Muslim men traditionally apply henna to their hair to make it a very bright red.

Mehndi, when used in any form, is considered very enriching and conditioning for the skin or the hair. If you have ever had mehndi applied, you may notice that the application has a very therapeutic effect upon the skin and creates a cooling sensation. Cool feeling remains for the duration that the henna paste is upon the skin and is aided by the lemon-sugar solution. Mehndi has always been recognized as a wonderful hair conditioner

For what occasions do people apply mehndi?

People apply mehndi in India during religious celebrations, like the Hindu New Year Diwale, as well as during weddings. At weddings in India, all the women gather at a mehndi party, 2 days before the wedding ceremony, to apply their mehndi -- so, not only is mehndi a beautification process, but it is a very social bonding experience as well. Bridal mehndi, which covers the hands up to the elbows and the feet up to the knees, can take at least 8 hours to complete -- and this time certainly does not include the time it takes to dry! While the bride is waiting, the women at the party spend the time singing songs and making jokes (in general) about the bride and her groom. Traditionally, in large cities only women apply mehndi, but at some very auspicious occasions young boys are permitted to wear it. In villages, both genders can wear mehndi. It can be said that Indian women liken mehndi to a form of makeup (in addition to face makeup). Mehndi has no true purpose in religion itself; it is meant to enhance beauty -- way back when, mehndi was used as a form of jewelry and intricate decoration at the marriage ceremony because actual jewelry was not worn, and traditionally the woman's body was to be completely cover. Other rumors said about mehndi say that, the darker the bride's mehndi stain, the more her husband loves her. Also, within the bridal mehndi the husband's name is usually written, so he must find his name in her mehndi before the couple marries. Another rumored tradition is that for the length of time that the bride's mehndi stays after the wedding ceremony, she is not required to do any household work. Some Indian women choose to wear mehndi daily if they are artists or have the time to apply it that often. Muslim women in villages paint their hands and feet red daily as well.