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Henna is a dye procured from a tree Lawsonia inermis whose leaves when dried and mixed with boiling water stain the skin with a mahogany colour.

The leaves of the tree are gathered green and are placed in the shade to dry gradually.  The leaves are then pounded and sifted to obtain a very fine powder.  The compound is kneaded to make a paste that is neither fluid nor thick.  The henna is then covered and left to rest overnight.

Henna designing is a form of intricate oriental henna painting that has been practiced for thousands of years - since the henna plant was first discovered in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  Henna designing is and ancient form of body art which has originated from the Middle East and India.

Chemical Composition

Chemically henna can be isolated in 12 different compounds.  Only one of which is responsible for the colour (Lawson) which is yellow in colour and is present in henna at a level of 1%only.  It dyes the skin and hair very rapidly.

Henna as Cosmetic

Henna has been a popular cosmetic in all the countries of the Middle East and the Indian Peninsula, where it grows as a common shrub.  Women from these regions use it as a cosmetic to beautify their hands and feet with intricate designs.  Henna is also used on hair as a conditioner as well as a dye.  It is also used by men on their hair and facial hair as a dye.  In the western countries it is mainly used as a hair dye.  Egyptian mummies have been found with hennaed nails.  The henna plant has been referred to as the 'Cypress of Egypt'.  Hebrews called it 'camphire'.  Henna is glorified in 'The Song of Solomon' - "My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of Engedi".

Medicinal Qualities

Henna has medicinal value too.  It is considered an anti-irritant, a deodorant and an antiseptic.  It is used by Ayurvedic physicians for the treatment of heat rashes and skin allergies and to cool the body against the intense heat of summers.  Because of it's cooling property henna leaves and flowers are made into lotions and ointments to be used externally for boils, burns and skin inflammations, including sores from leprosy.

The clusters of small rosy white flowers that cover a henna bush are very fragrant and used to make perfumes.  Sleeping on a pillow stuffed with henna flowers is considered to have a soporific effect on patients suffering from sleeplessness.

Henna in India

 In many parts of India, henna is part and parcel of a woman's life especially during festivals and weddings.  The role of henna goes much beyond cosmetic and aesthetic value.  Henna has a deeper meaning to the women of India.

The night before a wedding is known as the 'Night of Henna (Mehendi) when the bride's hands and feet are decorated in elaborate floral and fertility designs.

On the henna night, relatives and friends (married as well as unmarried) of the bride gather at the bride's house.  While henna is being applied the bride is enlightened about the mysteries of married life.  Many a folks songs are woven around henna nights signifying the departure of the bride to her husband's house and thus beginning an important stage of woman's life.

There are many stories about the longevity of henna on the bride's hand.  It is said that if the henna lasts longer on the bride's hands it indicates that the bride is treated well at her in-laws' place, sparing her from the household chores, at least on the first few days of her married life.  The bride's mother feels a sense of relief when the daughter visits her few days after the wedding and still able to see the henna design on her daughter's palm.

In some regions of India henna paste is also used to stain the bridegroom's palms.  Because the deep red left on the skin when the dried past is washed off is the colour that symbolises the deep love between the husband and wife.

Girls and women of all ages use henna.  It especially signifies married women.  Widows generally do not apply henna on their hands.

Henna in the Middle East

In the Middle East women use henna to decorate their hands and feet.  Men also use it as a dye on their hair and beard.  Women apply henna on their hands and feet approximately once every two weeks.  It is usually after the night prayer that most women dye their hands and feet.  It is believed that the action of the dye is most efficacious at night, especially when left on the skin all night.

 To obtain a maximum black hue a dry lemon is boiled in the water used to make henna paste as it's acidity makes the dye fast and because the tint becomes blacker from the colour released by the lime.  After 3-4 days the black colour fades into an auburn hue lasting for approximately 10 days and in turn fading to a light orange tome.  Rarely do women let the colour reach this stage and most apply fresh henna along the same lines of design of the first decoration, unless a different decorative style is desired.  In the latter case women wait till the dye has completely faded.

 In case intricate decoration lines are desired, a match sticks or a toothpick is used to be dipped in the paste.  For and adequate painting, the hand must be energetically stretched during the whole time of the dyeing.  This is necessary because the skin wrinkles and may deform the pattern if the hand relaxes.

Henna Today

Traditionally henna leaves were crushed finely, sieved in a fine cloth and then the past is applied with the help of a matchstick.  Now a day's henna powder is available in the market in a packed form.  Plastic cones are devised for easy application.  The cone has a fine opening at the thin end which lets a thin flow of past to facilitate intricate designing.  One can also get plastic cones filled with henna past ready to be used

Henna painting has become very popular as a form of temporary tattoo and is liked by one and all.  One of the main advantages of Henna painting is that the designs gradually fade from the body over a period of about two weeks.  Henna is a beautiful and painless alternative to tattoos.

Interestingly the onslaught of new fashions and styles for women has not pushed this ancient art of henna design to the background.  With new trends in fashion, henna design has blended well with time.  In fact they have become more beautiful and intricate with the use of plastic cones.  The popularity of henna designs show that it is going to stay for a long time.  


The henna lies soaking in a fine red bowl

The love juice of henna is a lovely tint

O lady who has painted thy hands

The love juice of henna is a lovely tint.

O lady put thy hand on my heart

The love juice of henna is a lovely tint.

-Popular folk song of Rajasthan