Henna in Indian Culture
In India, the use of henna has its beginnings in the northern part of the country, during the 12th century when it was introduced by the Mughal rulers.
Mehndi became most familiar when Rajasthani women started using it as a symbol of art and design. Similar to the tradition of ceremonial floor painting in Rajasthan, known as mandana, mehndi uses motifs from ancient history, including the folk tales and mythology of India. Numerous folk songs and proverbs also exist about mehndi.
As a symbol of prosperity and good fortune, mehndi continues to play a major role in modern Indian society, particularly during important occasions like weddings. Even today, a special day is allotted in an Indian marriage for the application of henna on the bride, as well as family members and friends. It is yet another example of how modern Indian society has carried on an ancient popular tradition. But mehndi is not exclusive to weddings, in fact, it is used on numerous occasions, like Holi, Diwali, Rakshabandhan, Teej and Nagpanchami.
The designs originate from the practices followed on these occasions and represent specific objects, dresses, floral designs, leaves, flowers and birds associated with the festival. Popular designs include the scorpion, a symbol of love and romance in Rajasthan, as well as the peacock, the lotus flower and the fish.
Mehndi has a special role during Karva Chauth, celebrated mostly in North India in the month of October. On this occasion, women take the day off, apply mehndi, dress in their wedding clothes and fast for the well-being of their husbands until they see the moon at night. Although the art is used primarily for decoration today, the use of mehndi is expressive of a distinct culture and bond that is created between women on such occasions. Different emotions and characteristics of their lives can be seen in the art work and the designs themselves reveal many sublime aspects of women’s culture.
No doubt, the henna craze in the West will die out in due course, just as all fads do. But in India, the art will remain a part of the cultural tradition that has thrived in the country for centuries.