While visiting Nepal, there are many unique experiences, specific to this part of the world, that we can take part in, expanding our comfort zone, and enriching our experience and knowledge base. Visiting local Buddhist temples is one of them, another experience altogether is getting a Mehndi “tattoo”. And since this practice is not native to our good old Europe, we highly recommend, when in Kathmandu, you get mehndi done, at least once!
Some of us were curious enough to invest some hours of our shopping time into getting Mehndi done on our hands, and…neck 😉 Hastily leaving lunch, we headed for a beauty parlor overlooking a forested park on the outskirts of Pashupatinath Hindu Temple. Swarms of small monkeys were dropping from the park’s trees, attracted by the smells of food, one of them ending up even on the parlor’ small terrace and producing distress among the Nepali ladies. Though looking very cute, we would only later find out on our own skins just how justified was those ladies’ distress.
WHAT IS MEHNDI?
Mehndi, the Indian term, or Henna, the Arabic one, represents a ceremonial art form of ancient origin, in which decorative designs are applied on the body, using a plant based paste, made from the powdered leaves of Lawsonia inermis, known as the henna plant.
Mehndi is usually applied on women’s hands and feet and sometimes on the back of their shoulders, while men have it applied on their arms, legs, back, and chest. Mehndi designs are applied during celebrations of special occasions, particularly weddings, as well as festivals, holidays, birthdays, engagements, pregnancy, births, circumcision, and so on. Whenever there is joy, there is some use of henna as part of the celebration, since henna is regarded as having “barakah”, blessings, and applying it brings luck, joy and beauty.
During weddings the bride gets extensive henna patterns done on her hands and feet that go to her elbows and sometimes, knees. Hidden within the mehndi pattern are the initials of the groom, which later he must find. If unsuccessful, he is obliged to give a gift to his bride. The weddings guests will also receive small designs on the backs of their hands, but typically the bride has the most henna, to express her great joy, and desire for luck. Tradition has it that for as long as the henna stains last on the bride, she doesn’t have to do any housework! :)))
Historically, henna has been used for over 5,000 years in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, North Africa and the Horn of Africa, by groups living in hot areas where henna grows naturally, such as: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Zoroastrians. Due to the long history of migration and cultural interaction, it has been difficult to determine its true origins. The earliest clear evidence of henna powder application on the body appears in Egyptian Pharaohs’ mummies, whose hair, fingers and toes were stained with the reddish-brown tones of henna. The henna plant is considered to have originated in Egypt and was carried to India by the Mughals.
It is believed that the origins of the art of Mehndi lie in the use of henna for its cooling properties. The people of the deserts used to make a paste of henna and soak their palms and soles of their feet in it to produce a cooling sensation throughout the body, that lasted for as long as the henna stain remained on their skin. It is thought that, as the stain faded away, it left patterns on the skin surface which inspired the making of decorative designs.
MEHNDI TRADITIONS AND SYMBOLS
There are three main Mehndi design traditions: Arabic featuring large, floral patterns on hands and feet; Indian that uses fine lines, lacy, floral and paisley patterns covering entire hands, forearms, feet and shins; and African, which is large and bold, with geometrically patterned angles.
Having mehndi on your palms signifies an offering from you to the world, the mehndi on the back of your hand symbolizes protection, while the designs on the feet strengthen the bond between your body and the earth.
Even though much of the symbolism of mehndi designs has been lost, some symbols remain popular, for instance: flowers symbolizing joy and happiness, the peacock signifying beauty, the lotus flower standing for creativity, grace, purity and the awakening of one’s soul, the sun symbolizing immortality, eternal love, and knowledge, or a mandala representing the universe.
GETTING MEHNDI APPLIED
A beautiful lady, by the name of Kali, was going to freehand the mehndi on our skins, one body part at a time, alternatively drawing on us. Henna paste is usually applied on the skin using a cone filed with paste. The paste is made from grinded fresh henna leaves mixed with oil. After about half an hour the paste dries and begins to crack.
Though expecting mehndi to be applied only by specially trained artists, we were surprised to discover that many women in Nepal exercise this skill, to more or less proficiency. Out of the several Nepali ladies that visited the beauty parlor while we were there, two of them joined Kali in applying mehndi on us. Quite an experience to have two women drawing on you at the same time! 😃
Being a laborious activity, it took a few hours to complete. Once finished, with hands kept away at a safe distance from touch, we headed back to the hotel. Since it is recommended to leave the dry paste on for at least one hour, we patiently waited until the rest of our team returned from shopping. Rubbing the dry paste off, we removed it to reveal a pale orange stain.
Over dinner and till morning, the stain gradually darkened, through oxidation, to a reddish-brown color, more intense on the thicker skin of the palms, and lighter on the rest of the thinner skin. The oxidation process takes 1-3 days, and the stain can last up to a few weeks, depending on various factors including the staining process employed, the henna paste composition and freshness, and where it is applied on the body, mehndi on thicker skin lasting longer than on thinner skin. Moisturizing with natural oils, such as olive, sesame seed, or coconut, after removing the dried paste, also helps extend the lifetime of the stain.
Originally only plant based henna was used, that leaves reddish-brown (or orange) coloring on the skin. But nowadays, out of the wish to produce a darker stain, black henna was produced by adding para-phenylenediamine (PPD) to the paste. Henna boosted with PPD is potentially very toxic and can cause severe allergic reactions and lifelong health damage. The use of true, natural henna doesn’t present any health hazards, so when opting for mehndi stay clear of black henna!
We chose a safe, trusted place to do our mehndi, that uses red, natural henna, and we experienced no health issues. When selecting your mehndi artist, we recommend you seek out a skillful and experienced person, who will draw beautiful designs on your skin.
Looking forward to seeing next year’s expedition ladies painted in mehndi designs!
Tags: henna, kathmandu, mehndi, one-of-a-kind, unique