Areddish powder or paste made from the dried leaves of the henna bush, known by the scientific name of Lawsonia inermis, henna has been used to decorate the human body for thousands of years. Many historians believe that henna could have been used by people to decorate their hands and feet as long ago as 7000 b.c.e. After the religion of Islam, also known as the Muslim religion, was founded around 620 c.e., intricately patterned henna tattoos, also called mehndi, became an important part of Muslim culture in south Asia, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. Though there is evidence that some men have used henna decorations in the past, most henna decoration is done on the bodies of women and is created by female henna artists.
Mehndi is an ancient folk art in which tiny brushes and pens are used to apply a paste made of henna powder in patterns and shapes on various parts of the body, especially the hands and feet. After several hours the dried paste is removed, leaving a dark or reddish stain behind in the shape of the design. Muslim women have gathered for centuries for festive henna parties, where a henna artist, called a mu'allima, paints henna decorations on the guests. This has long been an important traditional preparation for a wedding, where the bride is painted with large and complex mehndi patterns, and the women of the wedding party receive smaller designs.
Like many body decorations, the use of henna may once have had a practical purpose. Some scholars think that ancient people of India, Africa, and the Middle East may have painted henna paste on the palms of their hands and soles of their feet to combat the fierce heat of their homelands. As the mehndi evolved from a solid covering into intricate designs, the patterns of the henna drawings began to have a purpose. Certain symbols and designs were supposed to ward off evil spirits, attract luck, or increase a bride's fertility.
During the 1980s and 1990s many rebellious American youth in the United States were unhappy with the isolation they felt in modern society. These youth began to seek and wear ancient tribal symbols in an effort to find or create a modern "tribe" to which they could belong. Some began to wear mehndi, spreading the use of henna stains beyond the Islamic, or Muslim, community into popular Western youth culture.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
All the Rage. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.
Kapchan, Deborah. Gender on the Market: Moroccan Women and the Revoicing of Tradition. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.