Hand Me the Henna

Phase 1

The henna process that a traditional Hindu bride undergoes before her big day is one with great significance and beauty attached to it. Hand Me the Henna will explore the journey in three parts (phases) Each part will give you a sense of the body (what is happening at the exact moment), the mind (the history behind henna) and the spirit (how it makes me as the writer feel.)

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Location: Bagwandeen Household

Mission: Mehndi Day
Time: 08:25am

The Body: What is happening?

I disconnect my gaze and instantaneously squint as I adjust to the warm sunshine. The mellifluous sound of the tabla and sitar fills the home as my sister adorns herself in her majestic Indian attire. I glance at my sister and notice a look of anticipation: it seems to have hit her swiftly, almost like a wave, that today (which already feels like a lifetime) is the day that encompasses everything that she has ever envisioned for herself. Today marks the day that it will all finally come to life.

My family gathers in the garden and we embark on the first leg of the wedding festivities: the mehndi (henna) ceremony. As we await the arrival of the mehndi artist, the bride-to-be has her last meal of the day (other than this, my mom has permitted some snacking if the bride-to-be insists). Being a small eater, this ‘meal’ happens to be a tiny bowl of  chocolate ProNutro. This is the last time that she will use her hands without assistance, until the sun exits stage to let the stars dance around a blushing moon.

Consumed by vigour and exhilaration, she makes herself comfortable; sitting under a pagoda draped with fragrant, bright marigolds that were grown on my uncle’s farm especially for this purpose.  Once the artist arrives, the process of the particularly intricate art commences. Her steady hand begins dressing my sister’s skin with transiently elusive patterns and the bride-to-be is now no longer allowed to use her hands. The henna remains wet for at least two hours, although every time it dries completely the artist will moisten it again using a ‘trade secret concoction’, resulting in the risk of ‘smudging’. Consequently, minimum movement is essential. So I sit myself right next to my sister (in attempt to distract her from potentially messing some mehndi) and we begin to chat about whether the groom’s festivities tonight will be better than ours – as sisters do.

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Time: 09:15am

The Mind: The Backdrop of Henna as an Art

The art of henna application has been practiced for over five thousand years in countries of Indian and African cultures. The English name (henna) comes from the Arabic “innā” but is now more commonly known as Mehndhi (men-dee) in Eastern cultures.

Henna paste is prepared from the henna plant; botanically referred to as Lawsonia inermis. Its practical use became increasingly common when the Egyptians discovered that it had, ideal cooling properties which could counter the high temperatures of the desert. After realising that henna leaves a distinguishable tint on the body, its popularity grew when it was used in mainstream culture for decorative purposes on the body; often in the form of temporary tattoos and hair and fabric dye.

Where make-up can evoke a form of self-expression, similarly henna embodies the aspects of projecting an identity through the ‘enhancement’ of beauty. Henna continued to grow, aesthetically, in India and Pakistan as a decorative form in light of special and auspicious occasions. These included birthdays, pregnancy and marriage – marriage the most prominent celebration that calls for the application of henna.

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Time: 10:30am

The Spirit: How does it make me feel?

There was a feeling of twilight in the air for me. It might have been a bright, sunny day for everyone else, but to me, this was more like a magical dream and I was lost in another world. I found myself sitting there reflecting, as I observed my sister’s hands become immersed in the dark brown, moist henna.

Mehndi has constantly been a titillating subject for me. From a young age, I would attend family weddings and fervently anticipate the mehndi ceremony so I could join in on the festivities and beautify my palms with the elegant copper-tinted stain. I waited increasingly eagerly to celebrate this day with someone as close to me as my sister. Henna plays a vital role in the progression of the bride’s preparation leading up to her wedding day. This has had an incessantly had a poignant effect on me.

The way in which a woman can use something natural and extravagant at the same time to express her internal beauty externally has remained perpetually close to me. Internal beauty tends to be something that many women see as personal. Internal beauty, I believe, can only be seen by a few people – not everyone sees me internalize myself and my beauty. It is almost like offering your raw soul to just anyone. It is also quite challenging to find ways in which we can actually externalize inner beauty, which is why I feel henna is a precious practice because it follows tradition. Women sometimes choose patterns to be decorated on their hands that were seen on their grandmother’s hands during her wedding celebrations. It is factors such as tradition and the way in which we give significance to this tradition that can be a definition of internal beauty in my eyes.

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Stay tuned for phase two, where things get a little messy and a bit more intense!

Written by- Khinali Bagwandeen

Photographs by- Khinali Bagwandeen